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Originally published May 13, 2013 at 8:23 PM | Page modified May 14, 2013 at 9:49 AM

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Documentary explores life after the military for female veterans

“Service: When Women Come Marching Home,” a new documentary, chronicles the stories of eight military women, including their struggles with sexual assaults and serious wounds and the challenges of returning from war to family life.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In 1992, Angela Arellano, then a 19-year-old Marine based in Okinawa, told military police that a noncommissioned officer had raped her after an evening spent watching a football game on television.

The investigation did not result in a prosecution. Instead, Arellano was accused of lying and disciplined for an after-hours violation.

“They said he was an outstanding Marine and I was trying to smear his good reputation,” recalls Arellano of Tumwater, Thurston County. “I was given two weeks of restrictions, two weeks of extra duty and two months of reduced pay.”

Arellano is one of eight military women whose stories are told in “Service: When Women Come Marching Home,” a documentary screened Monday night in Tacoma.

A second screening, including a panel discussion with the filmmakers and some of the film’s subjects, will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Alder Commons Auditorium.

The documentary will air May 26 on KCTS-TV.

In recent weeks, the scope of military sexual assaults — and the difficulties victims face in reporting these crimes — has been on the front burner in Congress, generating bipartisan anger and calls for changes in the military justice system.

But the problem has been festering for decades. A Department of Veterans Affairs report cites 23 percent of the women seeking health care from the department report experiences of military sexual trauma.

Arellano waited until 2005, when she says she felt “something just wasn’t right inside of me,” to seek help.

She began seeing a therapist at VA Puget Sound Healthcare System for weekly counseling sessions — now down to once every three to six months. She credits the therapy and other treatment with helping her learn to cope with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Before, I could barely function, and the difference now is like night and day,” Arellano said.

The documentary follows Arellano to a counseling session at Puget Sound VA in Seattle and includes interviews with Jan Buchanan, who serves as the Women Veterans Program manager.

More than 6,634 women receive primary-care services at VA Puget Sound, with stand-alone clinics in Seattle and the American Lake division in Pierce County.

“Five years ago, of all the women veterans who were eligible to come to the VA ... only 15 percent did,” Buchanan said in the documentary, citing national figures. “Now, in the present war, more than 40 percent of the eligible are coming in.”

The “Service” documentary was completed in 2012, the same year as the release of “The Invisible War,” a searing examination of military sexual assaults that was nominated for an Academy Award.

“Service” explores sexual assaults as part of a broader look at the experiences of women in the military, the challenges they face coming home and the ways they have found to move forward with their lives.

One of the women featured in the film is LaShonna Perry, an Iraq war veteran, who was able to overcome a time where she was homeless. Another is Sue Downes, an Army veteran who lost her legs from a bomb explosion in Afghanistan and then worked to reclaim her life as a mother and wife.

“Military trauma is a huge issue but we didn’t want to portray that as the only issue that women face,” said Marcia Rock, the film’s New York-based co-producer. “These are strong women, and they don’t want to be stigmatized as victims.”

Rock, director of news and documentary at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, spent two years working on this project with co-producer Patricia Lee Stotter.

She felt it was important, as part of the documentary, to show the services available at the VA, but initially found it difficult to gain access to film the documentary.

She eventually turned to Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, the first female director of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, who helped persuade the Puget Sound VA to cooperate.

Alvarado-Ramos served 22 years on active duty and retired as the command sergeant major at Madigan Army Medical Center. She wanted the documentary to provide a “ balanced view” of the women’s experience in the military and felt that the producers accomplished that.

“I didn’t want it portrayed that, if your daughter goes into the military, this (sexual assault) is what will happen,” Alvarado-Ramos said. “The fact is that the military gave me my career. I would beg to differ.”

Arellano say that the documentary helped to free her up to talk more openly about her experiences.

She, too, is happy that it portrays a range of experiences of women in the military.

Soon, these military women will include her daughter, who has signed up to join the Army Reserve.

“It’s not my first choice for her,” she said. “But it is her life, and her decision, and I am here to support her. “

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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