Story by Sara Krog
Photos by Sofie Skødt Mortensen
Megan Karr, 36, walks back and forth in her bedroom in Louisville, Kentucky, on a Friday in November 2019 looking for her hat in a pile of clothes.It does not hang on the wall with the rest of her neatly sorted hats — a contrast to the rest of her apartment, where most of her belongings lie all over the place.
She is still trying to get everything organized after moving in back to her home town in August, she says.
“It sounds stupid, but this dumb hat can make me relax,” Karr says. “Kind of in the same way as a kid relaxes with its favorite blanket. It is frustrating that I can’t find it. I saw it yesterday.”
Tonight, she gets easily irritated.
Earlier today, her divorce was final. The court decided that Karr’s two daughters, age 6 and 9, will live with her ex-wife.
If she stays away from alcohol, she can eventually gain shared custody.
Karr finally finds the hat.
She puts the green military cap onto her head and sits down in her brown armchair in front of her TV. Her service dog Blaze rests right beside her in the flickering light of the TV screen. He calms her down when she needs it and carries her medicine in a little dog bag.
This is how the U.S. Army Military Police veteran spends most of her time — in the brown armchair. If the anxiety kicks in, it is easier just to stay in the dark living room and when Netflix is on, she can let out most of the bad thoughts and focus on the program. Today, she chose “Mindhunter.” She usually binge-watches because she can’t cope with cliff-hangers if an episode features an open ending.
“Some days it is even hard to get out of bed,” she says. “TV is really good for me if I need to shut down disturbing thoughts.”
All of these symptoms of the diagnoses Karr will carry for the rest of her life.
Her medical records show she suffers from anxiety, depression, tinnitus and a lower back injury. Her injuries came from working in the military, serving at Guantanamo Bay guarding some of the most dangerous accused terrorists in the world. It’s a time in her life that she is restricted from discussing publicly.
“They were never afraid to let us know that they intended to kill us if they had the chance,” she said. “Because of security circumstances we were unarmed. I have been in a fist fight with some of them, and I am a small woman. I have had all kinds of bodily fluids thrown at me.”
Most severe is her Traumatic Brain Injury and the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by an episode she describes as a rape committed by two former colleagues. The case was never prosecuted. The Department of Veteran Affairs has recognized that this serious trauma will never leave her. She suffers from military sexual trauma, a term now used in American military legislation.
Karr shares her memory of one night in 2009 like it’s today: She left the military base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to go to a restaurant with two colleagues to drink a couple of beers. The very last thing she remembers is standing in the bathroom of the restaurant texting her now ex-wife.
“I love you,” they let each other know.
The next morning, Karr woke up in her room feeling something odd.
She wore no socks.
Her car keys were gone but later turned up inside the vehicle.
She went to the hospital to get a rape kit done. No doubt, she had had sex against her will, she says.
“I had sworn to take a bullet for these guys, and they treated me like this,” Karr said. “It felt like a huge betrayal.”
Until that day, she had never slept with a man and her sexuality would later be the reason why she never got her justice.
The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy instituted by the Clinton Administration in February 1994 — the official U.S. policy on military service by gays, bisexuals, and lesbians — prevented her from being openly gay. The policy lasted until September 2011.
If Karr wanted her incident to go to trial, she would have to show texts on her phone that she knew would reveal her sexuality. This could end up costing her an entire career.
“I used to work with law enforcement,” she said. “The fact that none of my rapists were prosecuted felt terrible. It was almost as being raped all over again.
“After the incident, I changed, not necessarily to the better, but for the worse. I struggle a lot, and that struggle has been tough, especially for the people who knew me before. I guess this is what affected my family situation.”
On this Friday night in Louisville and almost every night, Karr tells her two daughters goodnight using FaceTime. Through the phone screen she tries to do what every other mom would do: ask them how their day has been; and tell them to calm down if they start snapping at each other.
As she chats, her voice reveals no signs of anxiety.
But since she moved out of their family home in February, the time she gets to spend with them has been different.
After months of homelessness, Karr is finally starting to settle down in the apartment she was granted by the Department of Veteran Affairs. Recently, she applied for disability compensation for her injuries, but until that claim goes through, a veteran’s organization will pay her bills.
Today, she has a doctor’s note that she is unable to work because of her diagnoses. Her issues led to alcohol abuse which later led to divorce.
“I didn’t let people around me know that I was drunk,” she says. “I could drink the entire day without anybody knowing it, but the more anxiety I got, the more I started drinking. One day I woke up as the kind of person who was drinking all the time and getting fat because eating felt comfortable. It took way too much effort to take care of myself.”
MST is not a diagnosis, rather a medical assessment used to describe a trauma caused by being sexually assaulted while serving in the military. Victims can gain disability compensations for PTSD and other mental issues related to MST, even if the incident was never reported. It is this kind of compensation that Karr awaits.
Statistics from the U.S Department of Defense show that more than 20,500 military personnel were sexually assaulted or raped in 2018. Of those, 13,000 were women and 7,500, men. In 2015, the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs registered more than 1.3 million outpatient visits related to MST in veteran clinics.
Since incidents are rarely reported, PTSD claims related to MST require less evidence and are granted by what the Department of Veteran Affairs calls “markers.” This can be statements from family members, records from rape crisis centers or other medical certificates.
A report from the Department of Defense sows 76.1 percent of all victims registered in 2018 did not report the crime.
Karr says that she settled with never reporting years ago. The chance of justice is smaller than the consequences of ripping up the trauma, she says.
Because of this, the chance of disability compensation from MST-related PTSD is essential to the healing process of the survivors, says Col Christensen, president of the organization Protect our Defenders. His organization advocates to fight sexual assault in the military.
“When few cases go through trial it can be explained by the difficulties with coming forward,” said Christensen, a former Navy prosecutor. “This means that the possibility to gain compensation is essential to get justice. The trauma has many consequences. Veterans with MST have an increased risk of homelessness, bigger risk of suicide.”
An MST designation acknowledges that there is a significant difference between being assaulted in the civilian world and inside the military because of the way the military works. In the military, you cannot just quit, he said.
“If you are assaulted by your boss in the local grocery store you can leave,” Christensen says. “If you do that in the military, you can end up as a criminal yourself.”
Christensen believes the culture of devaluating women inside the military needs to be fought with more attention toward gender equality from the military leadership. But he knows that men are also victims of sexual assault.
Still, the military must be better at setting the tone and making it clear that female soldiers are just as welcome in the armed forces as males. Women should never be seen as sexual objects but as equal soldiers in combat, Christensen says.
“As I see it, the highest commands have failed when it comes to creating a culture for equality,” he said. “And if 99 percent of all rapists are never held accountable, it is never going to be any better.”
The military’s “risk rule” excluded women from units or missions if the risks of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire or capture were equal to or greater than the risk in the units they supported. It was repealed in 1994, and it led to thousands of previously restricted positions being opened for women. But many direct combat positions remained closed until 2015. Nonetheless, this led to more women entering the military in the following years. Today, 11 percent of 20 million American veterans are female.
Phyllis Abbot, founder of Lady Veterans Connect, a veteran shelter for 32 homeless women veterans in Lexington, Kentucky, said that trauma related to MST is a big part of working with former female soldiers.
“Women veterans have female needs,” she says. “Many of our residents suffer from PTSD and have the same symptoms as the men. The difference is, that it comes from MST.”
Abbot estimates that 60 percent of her residents suffer from trauma related to sexual assault.
On a Saturday morning in November 2019, Karr she walks down the stairs from her first-floor apartment wearing her Army green hat. In a few minutes, she is supposed to meet a group of veterans for a Jeep-tour, but she is late.
As Karr unlocks her car, tears fall on her face.
“I easily get flustered,” she says.
Stress gives her anxiety.
It is raining. Karr is outside the garage where the rest of the veteran’s group is having breakfast. The anxiety makes it hard for her to take part.
After a while, she goes back in. The president of the group greets everyone. This group is one of the most important communities Karr has in her life right now. After the divorce, a lot of the contact with her ex-wife’s family naturally was cut, and her own family lives out of state.
The other veterans understand her mood, she says. That makes it easier take part in activities like this.
“Veterans are veterans,” she says. “When I walked in here, one of the other guys walked up to me and asked if I was OK, and I said ‘No.’ My heart is beating. I am late because my alarm didn’t go off.’ But I didn’t need to explain all this to him because he knows my situation.”
Before the divorce, she showed up to events like this more often, but lately she has been less social.
When the off-road Jeep later that day got stuck in a pool of mud, the adrenalin made Karr forget her anxiety. She laughed and thanked the other veterans for dragging her out.
That night she went to bed happy.
The awareness of military sexual assault started in 1991 with the “Tailhook” scandal. More than 100 Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted 83 women and seven men at a hotel in Las Vegas.
Lt. Paula Caughtland reported it the next day, but when nobody in the chain of command took action, she went to the press. After this, the public became aware that sexual assault happened inside this disciplined institution.
In 2003, the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force was created by Department of Defense to fight the problem. In 2012, the documentary “The Invisible War,” based on a book by journalist Helen Benedict, was released. This was an investigative project in which numerous female veterans shared stories of sexual assault and the neglect they faced when trying to prosecute.
The Oscar-nominated movie was the final factor to cause attention, says Jerri Bell, an author and a former intelligence officer in the U.S Navy.
“This brought the conversation into the public eye in a whole new way,” he says. “It got more visibility in Congress.”
In 2013, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, introduced the bill known as “The Military Justice Improvement Act.” Its purpose was to move assault cases away from the commanding officers and into a separate justice system aligned with how cases are prosecuted civilian courts. This was an attempt to send more cases to court.
“Still, this hasn’t passed,” Bell said. “The pushback is that it will undermine the commanding officer’s authority.
“Typically, more conservative legislators are still listening to this argument despite almost every survivor saying that these cases need to be handled differently. There is a lot more talk about women being equal than there is actual action. That is still a problem.”
The Sunday following the vet’s meeting, the sun struggles to pierce the curtains in Karr’s apartment in Highland. Her eyes are sensitive to light, so there is a purpose for the darkness. She walks around the kitchen, feeding her service dog Blaze and gets dressed in a flat cap, shirt and pants, leaving her joggers in the bedroom.
She needs to move on after a rough night, she says.
The sheets were messy when she woke up. Blaze was laying on her chest, as he does to stop her from hyperventilating.
The anxiety returned when she placed her head on the pillow last night.
She found no peace.