Veterans Affairs officials in their bumbled attempts at improving their outreach program to military sexual misconduct victims made matters worse for the several victims with whom they spoke by the way they cold-heartedly and insensitively approached the issue. Their callousness left a few of the victims retraumatized.
The officials set up a telephone-style town hall meeting in which they cold-called the victims, catching them off guard. With warning whatsoever, the women, who were probably having a good day up until this point, were immediately transferred into an ongoing discussion about sexual abuse in the military.
This comes amid the V.A.s grappling with the condemnation they received for the mishandling of a sexual abuse claim at one of their facilities last year.
Secretary Robert Wilkie along with other VA senior administrators have been under a loaded gun for the department to make immediate improvements. Still, all of them insist that the implementation of new programs in recent years have made the handling of sexual abuse issues easier for women veterans and sexual assault survivors to properly address.
But if the “take ’em by surprise” phone attack is any indication of what’s to come, there’s a drawing board waiting for their return. Advocates criticized the V.A.s sloppy approach as poorly thought out and potentially harmful. Their purpose is in building positive relationships with veterans, not propel them into a backward tailspin.
One of the sexual assault victims who was taken by surprise was Marine Corps veteran Jenn Haskamp. When her caller I.D. showed an incoming call from the V.A., she figured she must have missed an appointment and they were calling her to reschedule. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Upon answering the call she received an automated voice message telling her to hold on, which she did. It was around dinner time. After a moment she began hearing other voices.
It was then when she realized she was listening to other victims describing their abuses and the struggles they had experienced with the V.A.
The call resembled an infomercial. Each time a victim would point out areas where the V.A. had let them down, a moderator would come on and tell them the ways their departments’ services could now better assist them.
In Haskamp’s exact words, “I hung up, and vomited.” She then said, “Having military sexual trauma as part of my history is emotionally exhausting. I don’t walk into a room and introduce myself as a rape survivor, but it’s always there. It’s there in such a stifling way that I actively plan coping mechanisms for the times I need to talk about it.”
Lisa Wilken, chair of the AMVETS National Women Veterans Committee, Lisa Wilken was another sexual abuse victim to receive the V.A.s unexpected call.
As an Air Force veteran Wilken has testified before Congress about the V.A.s past atrocious handling and treatment of military sexual trauma survivors. Her reaction was similar to Haskamps.
“As a rape survivor, I choose when I want to talk about my trauma,” Wilken said. “So getting an unannounced call wasn’t appreciated at 5 p.m. when I had just started to get dinner started.”
“As soon as the sharing started, I hung up because it wasn’t a good time for me to go in that head space. It was insensitive of them to do, even if they mean well. It shows me their efforts are for show and not even well meaning, due to lack of thought.”
Several other of the contacted victims took to the pages of social media to express their disgust at receiving the phone call. All of them expressing how the call had set them several paces in the wrong direction.
VA press secretary Christina Noel issued a statement saying that department officials “apologize to anyone who this event may have upset,” but couldn’t resist the urge to say how some of the other veterans on the surprise call seemed to be helped by the event.