This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Veterans advocate Terri Odom says that 25 years after she was brutalized by a trusted Navy colleague, she is finally getting on with her life -- by advocating for the nearly 20,000 U.S. servicewomen and servicemen who are the victims of military sexual assault every year.
Odom, 48, says it’s time for the military to change the way it handles sexual assault cases because rapes are rarely prosecuted and victims are often punished for reporting the crime. She believes that little has changed since she was tortured and raped -- and ultimately forced out of the Navy with an honorable discharge without her case ever being investigated.
"In the military they’ve gotten away with it for so long. They’ve hidden it under the rug like it never happened,’’ she said. “In the civilian world, we have laws and prosecutions and sentencing and prison. That serves not only to punish the person to be incarcerated but also as a deterrent.”
Odom, who volunteers as a veterans adviser at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, was one of the panelists at the screening of the documentary "Service: When Women Come Marching Home” Tuesday night at the Missouri History Museum. Several of the women in the film have stories similar to Odom's about their sexual assaults.
Odom is also an active member of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that supports victims of military sexual trauma (MST) and is pushing the military to change the way it investigates and prosecutes cases. She was part of a group that met with Congress in January. A petition she wrote is posted on the Protect Our Defenders website urging Congress to support "The STOP Act.”
The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., would require the military to develop a new procedure for handling cases of sexual assault that would be outside the normal chain of command. On July 12, 2011, Speier told Odom's story on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Odom said that because of her advocacy efforts she hears from veterans and also from active duty personnel who have been assaulted and feel that they have no one to turn to.
"This is my mission. This is what I do,” she said. “I never stopped serving my country. I’m not going to quit on the military. They quit on me.”
Odom has also supported legislative efforts by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to prevent military commanders from dismissing jury convictions against sex offenders. McCaskill recently delivered the keynote address at a summit on military sexual violence sponsored by the Service Women's Action Network. Odom also credits McCaskill with helping to cut through bureaucratic red tape so Odom could receive medical treatment at the VA for disabilities that were the result of her assault two decades ago.
About one in five women and one in 100 men treated at the VA respond "yes” when they are screened for MST, according to the VA. MST is defined by the VA as sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment.
In January 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said 3,191 sexual assaults were reported in the military in 2011. But because only a fraction of assaults are reported, he estimated the actual number at about 19,000. At the time, Panetta announced initiatives to aid victims and to strengthen prosecution of military sexual assault cases.
Advocates, such as Odom, say that much more needs to be done.
'The hardest day of my life'
Odom, who lives in Imperial, Mo., said she gets up at 4 a.m. to make the commute to the St. Louis VA where she is a full-time volunteer. In addition to helping survivors of MST, she assists veterans who need help getting their benefits; she also works with homeless veterans. Because she is still dealing with post-traumatic syndrome and the effects of a traumatic brain injury suffered during her assault, she is not comfortable driving on the interstate and makes part of the trip by bus.
"They say you should have a job you would be willing to work for free, and I do,” she said, smiling. “Somebody’s got to do what I do.”
She adds that this "job” has helped her finally to move forward in her own life.
Odom joined the military when she was 17 — the day after she finished high school — and served in both the Army and Navy.
"I joined the military to serve my country. I found it noble. I found it honorable. And it was really the only ambition I had in my life for as long as I can remember. I was certain that when I raised my right hand that I would serve for 30-plus years,” she said.
"The hardest day of my life was the day the military told me I had to take my uniform off. I’ve only been fired from one job in my life and that was from the military. I was fired either because I reported a crime or because I was a victim of a crime. I’ll never know. I’m honored that I’m back serving my country by serving my vets,”\ she said. "That is the main reason for me to speak out. To save lives.”
Although Odom has spoken about her assault publicly, her voice still chokes when she discusses the details. She said the man who assaulted her was an older noncommissioned officer who had gained her trust. A video on the Protect Our Defenders website in which she relates the story of her assault is graphic and difficult to watch. She describes how the man raped her, beat her -- and then left her to die.
Odom said she still grapples with the fact that her rapist had been a trusted friend. And that her commanding officers continued the betrayal by failing to prosecute the offender and instead threatened her with military prison if she spoke out. The story she relates of her medical care in military hospitals after the assault is stunning. In her effort to save her military career she said she agreed to have an abortion, which she had to pay for herself.
"The hardest thing for me out of everything was the abortion. And that’s still the hardest thing today so many years later. I think that I still have guilt and remorse,” she said. "I was told, ‘If you want to keep your career you must have this abortion. It is not an option. There is too much DNA. If we put the word rape in your file, you’re automatically going to get a dishonorable discharge.’ “
Odom said the shock of the physical assault was multiplied by the lack of care and justice that followed. Although she was forced out of the military, she said her rapist was never punished and eventually retired from the Navy.
"I thought, ‘They’re going to fix it. I haven’t done anything wrong,' ” she said. "And I also thought that this must have never happened to anyone else. But it’s been happening for a long time. And it’s still happening.”
Time for change
As part of her volunteer duties, Odom serves as an adviser for the St. Louis VA’s efforts to transform its MST program for veterans. She said it is an important task because the VA ultimately is responsible for caring for veterans who too often were denied proper treatment after their assaults.
"There’s been a lot of victim blaming,” she said. "When I served, obviously there was no support system. It was very violent, and I had physical scars afterward -- a lot of them medical fallout from not being treated properly.”
Eve Holzemer, manager of the women veterans program at the St. Louis VA, said that Odom is providing critical insights into caring for MST survivors.
Holzemer said she admires Odom's courage in speaking out.
"I don't know a lot of people who could go through what she has and come out the other end as amazing as she is," Holzemer said. "That's something I've learned in this job: how amazing the women veterans are that I have the great opportunity to work with.''
Holzemer said that Odom's sense of duty is inspiring.
"I think that the fact that she's able to share her story is also empowering to other veterans because they know that they are not alone,'' she said.
Odom credits the medical and mental care she received at the St. Louis VA for saving her life. She said that the VA has work to do in providing treatment for MST survivors, but she believes that it often shoulders the blame for the military’s failure.
"We weren’t treated well in the military by our chain of command; we had no support. Then we had a medical team that failed us,” she said. "The VA has to clean up everybody else’s mistake, and yet nobody is criticizing the military hospital that failed us. Not too many people like us on the Hill with Congress criticizing our chain of command. But that’s where the failure was.”