Military Rape Awareness Week only comes to life with the story of those who’ve survived it over the years. One such story is that of former Pvt. Colleen Mussolino, founder of the pioneering Women Veterans of America, retold below by veterans advocate Susan Avila-Smith, who continues Mussolino’s work with her Women Organizing Women. (There’s a “fan page” for Colleen Mussolino on Facebook, linked here.)
In Memory of Colleen Mussolino, Trailblazer
“I wanted to be an aviation engineer,” Mussolino said. “The recruiter said I could get into the program, but I found out that was closed to women.” Instead she became a cook.
Soon the young WAC would find out just how differently women were regarded in the military. On Dec. 29, 1965, Colleen was raped by four men and left for dead. She spent one night in the hospital and was sent right back to her barracks. Colleen was treated like a prisoner of war, interrogated and blackballed on the post as superiors tried to force her to sign a paper that she would not prosecute. Threatened with a dishonorable discharge, Mussolino signed the paper and was honorably discharged in March 1967.
For the next 20 years, Mussolino raised two sons and lived her life. But as time went by, the traumatic assault that was supposed to be covered up and forgotten began to take its toll. “I was getting more and more short-tempered,” Mussolino said. “My temper was just bad.” One day, while fishing with a World War II veteran, he told her she was entitled to veterans benefits. She applied and began to receive them. She also joined a women’s support group at the Brooklyn, N.Y. VA Medical Center. “I was looking for other women who went through what I went through,” Mussolino said. “Your civilian counterparts have no clue.”
Women Veterans of America
With talk of the war breaking out in the Persian Gulf, she realized more women would be involved in combat than ever before. In response, she co-founded Women Veterans of America to offer support and bring attention to the issues facing women in the military. “The transition from military to civilian life is difficult,” Mussolino said. “Once the uniform goes on, it never comes off.”
WVA’s mission: Information and support for women veterans; liaision to government agencies; obtaining veterans’ benefits and health care; advocacy in local and national issues affecting women veterans and women serving in the military. Its strategies include:
- Pressure Congress and the Department of Defense to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include a fair avenue for victims of assault and rape to be able to report their cases and get their day in court.
- Punish those who perpetrate such crimes and offer protection from intimidation and threats for women who report the assaults. “The repercussions from the way the victims are treated only adds to the problem and can cause severe PTSD symptoms,” the statement reads. “The UCMJ does not protect the victim but instead rewards some perpetrators with promotion, and does not punish except with a slap on the wrist and a finger shaken in the face,” it continues. “It is difficult for many to fathom the emotional and physical turmoil that the men and women of the armed forces are put through. To add sexual assault to the burden is unconscionable.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) can be caused by sexual harrassment, rape and intimidation, or any improper sexual behavior. As that ABC report and countless since have documented, the perpetrators of such acts often go unpunished by the military, with no “record” remaining.
In November 1996, reports of sexual harrassment and sexual assault against women at the Army Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md., prompted ABC News 20/20 to put together an investigative piece on the military’s handling of sexual assault. One member of Women Veterans of America wrote to 20/20 about her own experience: “She was afraid to be interviewed because she had been given death threats,” Mussolino said. Instead, Mussolino agreed to share her own story of sexual assault and cover-up in the military with Peter Jennings. “I figured if anything came out of it, women would know they are not alone, and there is help,” Mussolino said. “Not only women are raped, but men are raped. The story seemed to validate them, too.”
During the show’s airing, the Department of Veterans Affairs made a toll-free number available for women to call in for counseling. “Over 3,000 women called that night from all diferent wars and branches of service,” Mussolino said. “The Department of Veterans Affairs realized more had to be done for women veterans. A lot of Vietnam veteran women in this country don’t come forward,” said Mussolino. “They don’t talk about it. Those are the ones I want to reach. There is help. There is therapy by talking to a brother or a sister.”
Despite her disabilities, which have put her in a wheelchair, Colleen would be at every significant event for MST and Vietnam vets, and was the primary point of contact for the media since the early 1970s. But since Colleen’s terminal illness, Women Veterans of America decided that WVA is taking too much time on the issue of MST, and has dropped it from their services.
A Northern California journalist and author of Gentle Medicine, Lily Casura has become known in the past five years as a passionate veterans’ advocate. This post first appeared on her flagship site, Healing Combat Trauma.