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Originally published Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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New Seattle charity aims to help military sexual-trauma victims

Pack Parachute provides financial assistance and advocacy for veterans who were raped while serving in the military. The new charity adds to Seattle's tradition of being a resource for military sexual-trauma victims.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information online

www.packparachute.org

Military sexual trauma by the numbers

Women

... make up 10% of veterans.

... make up 49% of military sexual-trauma victims.

Men

... make up 90% of veterans.

... make up 51% of military sexual-trauma victims.

One in five female veterans reports having been sexually assaulted while serving in the military.

One in twenty male veterans reports having been sexually assaulted while serving in the military.

Source: Pack Parachute, Office of Veterans Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services

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When Amando Javier's 15-year secret finally became too much to handle alone, he turned to the people he trusted: his therapist, his sister, his wife. They were supportive, but couldn't help.

Late one night, searching the Internet from his home in New Mexico, he stumbled across a woman living 1,500 miles away in Seattle. Her name was Susan Avila Smith, and she specialized in helping veterans raped while serving in the military — people like him.

He e-mailed her. That day, she e-mailed back.

"She welcomed me with open arms and said she would help me," Javier said.

"She was the only one."

But more are on the way.

Pack Parachute, a new charity co-founded by Avila Smith this summer in Seattle, is designed to give men and women who were raped while serving in the military the financial and emotional aid they need.

Kira Mountjoy-Pepka, the charity's director, chose the name as a reference to the job of packing parachutes for fellow soldiers in case something goes wrong.

"You don't pack your own parachute. You rely on someone else because it can be too intense," she said.

The same way, Pack Parachute supports military sexual-trauma victims as they seek help.

Pack Parachute's mission is to train advocates — many of whom, like Mountjoy-Pepka and Avila Smith, are victims of military sexual trauma themselves — to help veteran victims file claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs, find and keep a job and home, or simply get the cash to buy simple things such as toothpaste and bus tickets.

"It sounds small," said Avila Smith. But for Pack Parachute's clients, especially those who also have post-traumatic stress disorder, "simple things get really difficult.

"I've been in the trenches. That's the hard stuff."

Advocate for veterans

Javier is not the first person whose search for help led to Seattle.

Avila Smith is known nationally as an advocate for veterans who slip through the cracks of the Veterans Affairs health-care system. After she was raped while serving in the Army, Avila Smith became a self-taught expert on helping veterans who were raped navigate the complicated VA system.

Military sexual trauma is unique in the world of sexual assault, Avila Smith said. It combines the violent, violating act of rape with the alienation and shame seen in veterans suffering combat trauma — all set within the Byzantine complexity of military bureaucracy.

In the military, reports of rape are handled by officers, who tend to value unity and conformity over individual complaints, Avila Smith said.

Victims who report being raped can be ignored or have charges levied against them — for filing false charges, exhibiting conduct unbecoming of military personnel, or adultery.

Sexual assaults are rarely reported in general, but in the military, rape victims are often threatened, intimidated or persecuted into silence by military members who are directly responsible for the victim's safety while serving, said Avila Smith.

Kay Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in the Department of Defense, calls the threats and persecution that can follow a rape a "re-victimization" and said it is not limited to military members.

"I think it's a national problem," said Whitley. "That can happen to anyone, civilian or military."

In 2005, when reports began surfacing of sexual assaults during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense made sexual-assault prevention and response a priority and created new policies to provide victims with resources.

"With everything we have in place now, that should not be happening," Whitley said about revictimization. "We have made big progress in a short period of time. There is a system in place to take care of them."

The seven Marine Corps soldiers who gang-raped Javier threatened to kill him if he told anyone, so he never reported his rape, he said.

"I knew these people. I worked with them day in and day out," Javier said. "I didn't really know what to do because of the shame and humiliation."

After he met Avila Smith, she hooked him up with an online support group, men talking openly about their rapes.

"This is not a 'woman' problem," said Mountjoy-Pepka. A little more than half of military sexual-trauma victims are men, mostly because they make up a majority of veterans, according to the VA.

"If you're a male in the military and you're a macho guy and you're raped, your shame is compounded and multiplied," she said.

Many veterans never make it to Veterans Affairs hospitals, often because mental disorders — such as post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction — which are developed after a sexual assault or after facing combat, can keep them from knowing or admitting they need help, Avila Smith said. Half of veterans and 80 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who reported sexual trauma are diagnosed with a mental condition, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"It's not like they walk off the battlefield and know they need to call for help," Avila Smith said.

Launched a month ago

Since its launch a month ago, Pack Parachute has focused on recruiting volunteers, many of whom are rape survivors and veterans themselves. So far, eight people have begun training to provide emotional and financial support to military sexual-trauma victims.

RobinLynn, an advocate-in-training who goes by one name, signed on to give veterans the resources and support she says she never got.

"They didn't have anything like Pack Parachute after I was raped," she said. "So when I found out about it, I was like, that's where my heart is."

RobinLynn was raped in 1980 during basic training for the Air Force, one month into her service. She said she was at a medical facility to get treatment for a respiratory infection when a man entered the room, shut the door and raped her.

She never saw the man again, but she was too afraid to tell anyone what happened, she said. She believed what happened to her wasn't rape because she never screamed.

"Women weren't supposed to fraternize with the men, so I kept my mouth shut," she said.

After completing her military service, RobinLynn tried to forget what happened to her. She threw away the decorations she'd earned after eight years in the military and wanted to move on with her life, she said.

Soon she began experiencing flashbacks, feeling overwhelming fear and having trouble keeping a job or relationship — all signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She lived on the streets for 10 years, unable to bring herself to seek help at the Veteran Affairs hospital. The building triggered too many memories, she said.

After 20 years of silence, she forced herself through the doors of an emergency room and asked for help.

"I was so sick, but I had to do something," she said. "It takes a lot to be aware that you need to ask for help."

And now, RobinLynn and the team at Pack Parachute say they can start giving that help to veterans — in Seattle and beyond.

"I'm very proud of them," Javier said.

"They gave me the idea that I am not alone."

Lindsay Toler: 206-464-2463 or ltoler@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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