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Veteran Women's Center Underscores Toxic Culture in Maine National Guard

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Tuesday, April 19, 2022   

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and advocates are urging more accountability for responding to sexual assault, harassment and a toxic culture within the Maine National Guard.

Most assaults in the military go unreported, often because victims or survivors may fear social or professional retaliation, according to a report from the RAND Corporation. And Veterans Affairs (VA) noted military sexual trauma increases the risk of homelessness.

Rebecca Cornell du Houx, executive director of the Sisters in Arms Center, a safe haven and support group for Maine active service members and veterans, said the issue is far-reaching.

"It is shocking how there are just so many women that have been impacted," Cornell du Houx observed. "Everything from just a really toxic environment all the way over to full-blown assault that are in the National Guard, and it's definitely still currently going on."

Gov. Janet Mills recently created a permanent advisory council on Military Sexual Trauma (MST) to ensure all survivors have access to resources and to improve the Guard's response to instances of sexual assault or harassment. And the Legislature passed a bill last week to require an annual review from the Attorney General, and to strengthen prevention and response. It now heads to the governor's desk for a signature.

Cornell du Houx acknowledged the efforts are important steps, but added change is going to take a major culture shift. She noted women are a minority in the Maine National Guard. There may just be a few, or a handful of women in a given unit, and there are often power dynamics at play between different ranks.

"I think myself and other survivors as well are hopeful," Cornell du Houx explained. "But at the same time, I think that one big thing is that trust has been so eroded and broken within the system itself, particularly for the women that are serving."

Data from VA national screening program found one in three women and 1 in 50 men respond yes when their VA provider asks if they have experienced MST. VA offers MST-related resources at every VA Medical Center, and counseling at community-based Vet centers for all veterans, even if they do not qualify for other VA benefits.


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