NASHUA — Judy Atwood-Bell is speaking out as a rape survivor, hoping to be the voice for veterans who have suffered similar sexual assaults.
The New Hampshire resident and veteran of the U.S. Army shared her personal struggles during a roundtable discussion Tuesday at Nashua Community College.
"I am a rape victim," said Atwood-Bell, explaining she was only 19-years-old when she was sexually assaulted while on active duty at Fort Devens.
The retired sergeant first class described it has a horrific event in her life that took her a long time to acknowledge and seek help.
"The depression I suffered was unbelievable," said Atwood-Bell, adding suicidal thoughts made it difficult for her to get off the couch.
While she has healed since those dark moments several years ago, Atwood-Bell is now on a mission to help others who may have faced the same type of assault while serving.
"I want to give other veterans hope," she told participants in the roundtable discussion, including Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster.
Kuster hosted Tuesday's event, which gathered advocates and other leaders from New Hampshire who are attempting to combat military sexual assaults.
Kuster says she is committed to putting an end to sexual assault in the military and is supportive of bipartisan legislation to enhance whistleblower protections for service members who report instances of sexual assault in the military.
"We need to be honest, candid and open in our response when things don't go well," said Kuster, sharing a story about a woman who served 10 years in the Marines and was frequently sexually assaulted.
Kuster also shared a separate story about a young, male service member who was locked in a closet and raped at knifepoint.
"This behavior is not acceptable to anyone," she said, stressing the need to speak openly about the 14,000 women and 12,000 men who were victims of unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2012.
In addition to H.R. 1864, the Military Whistleblower Protection Bill, Kuster is also co-sponsoring other legislation such as the Ruth Moore Act, which would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to annually report to Congress on disability benefits claims submitted for covered mental health conditions alleged to have been incurred or aggravated by military sexual trauma.
Other efforts co-sponsored by Kuster include the Military Justice Improvement Act and H.R. 2974, which would provide for the eligibility of beneficiary travel for veterans seeking treatment or care for military sexual trauma in specialized outpatient or residential programs at VA facilities.
"I see an equal number of men and women (sexual assault survivors)," said Becky Robinson, an expert on military sexual trauma for the White River Junction VA Medical Center. "And veterans are sending veterans to us."
Victims are often fearful to come forward, worried about possible retaliation or even being discharged with unfit diagnoses, according to Kuster, who is hoping to amend existing law to prevent victims from facing retaliation if they report sexual misconduct in the military.
"This is an enormous issue for the military right now," said Col. Paul Loiselle, chief of the joint staff for the New Hampshire National Guard.
Loiselle said he is pleased to be able to listen, learn, collaborate and find the best practices for handling sexual assaults in the military.
Protection, justice and advocacy are the three major factors in trying to combat the problem, according to Kuster.
For Jo Moncher, bureau chief of community based military programs for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, her biggest concern is the time lapse between when the assaults occur and when they are initially reported.
"This issue has not gotten as much attention as it should," Moncher said.