Maine women soldiers form support group for sexual trauma survivors

(Tribune News Service) – Two members of the Maine Army National Guard are launching a support group for female veterans who have experienced sexual assault and harassment.

The group’s first meeting will take place at 6 p.m. on December 11 at the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope in Augusta, a non-profit organization providing transitional housing for female veterans and headed by First Lieutenant Rebecca Cornell du Houx.

She and another soldier, Sgt. Aleigh Suffern, decided to form the support group following a recent Bangor Daily News investigation in a predatory culture within the Maine Army National Guard that soldiers say allows sexual misconduct, retaliates against women who come forward and are forgiving of abusers.

“We strongly encourage and invite all women to take the step of faith and come and share their story, enjoy a meal, strategize to support future generations, discuss system failures, offer or seek resources, or just listen. quietly while sharing the company of their sisters through laughter and tears, ”said Cornell du Houx, who also works in mental health as a licensed clinical social worker.

The problem of sexual assault in the military has been well established for years and disproportionately affects women. BDN’s investigation found a recent increase in cases of substantiated sexual assault in the Maine Army National Guard, but most go unreported due to soldiers’ fear of repercussions if they speak out .

Meanwhile, the psychological toll from the sexual trauma can devastate survivors. A study found that female soldiers die by suicide at a rate twice as high as their male counterparts. Soldiers who spoke to BDN said they didn’t think the guard had done enough to support them or to hold the perpetrators accountable.

“I hope we can reach other women who are out there, who read the story and feel empowered to join our group and support each other,” said Cornell of Holly.

In addition to providing a confidential support space, the group will also serve as a jumping off point for women looking for local resources to deal with sexual trauma or report sexual assault.

For Suffern, it took years to finally tell people that she had been sexually assaulted and needed help because the experience can be so isolating, she said.

“If there is a need that the caretaker does not meet, how can we, as a group, collectively support each other to match the appropriate care? ” she said. “People need to feel that they have allies and that they are not alone.”

Maine National Guard officials have repeatedly said they are doing everything possible to eliminate sexual assault and support survivors, but unlike other states, leaders have not said whether they will take specific actions in response to BDN reports.

On Tuesday, Major General Douglas Farnham, who oversees the guard, wrote an OpEd in the BDN reiterating the guard’s policies on sexual assault and pledging to “continue to aggressively seek action against those who fail to comply not our values ​​”.

If you or someone you know needs any resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

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Virginia S. Braud