The Sisters in Arms Center, a safe haven for women veterans who have been sexually harassed or assaulted while serving. Photo by Ramona du Houx

April 25, 2022

Op-ed by Rebecca Cornell du Houx, ED Sister in Arms Center, LCSW, First Lieutenant, Maine Army National Guard Medical Unit, Masters of Science in Human Development

As our National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month comes to an end, please don’t let the issue fade. Too many women suffer needlessly because it’s often hard to accept where our culture is failing. Find solace in knowing that a way to help stop sexual predators is to ensure society is aware that they are present in all walks of life—including in the Maine National Guard.

With 18% of women serving in the National Guard, we’re a minority. While that should never put anyone at risk it’s evident that the internal military culture has not adjusted to having women serve as equals. The prevailing attitude which promotes hazing, abuse and sexual misconduct must shift for all ranks. In a VA national screening program when participants were asked if they have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST) they found one in three women and 1 in 50 men responded affirmatively. “One in three women” needs repeating because it unequally shows the prevalence of the problem.

I have met too many fellow sisters-in-arms whom have become homeless because of the abuse that happened to them serving their country. Women veterans are the fastest growing sector of the population that is becoming homeless. A study by the Veterans Administration (VA) of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans found that those who experienced military sexual trauma were twice as likely to become homeless. If all these statistics shock you, hearing their stories would break your heart.

The good news is there is a sanctuary in Augusta, the Sisters in Arms Center, for military women and their families. It’s a welcoming home where they can receive guidance from licensed professionals who show them how to navigate the trauma they are experiencing within a group, and with assistance from relevant agencies. 

Some service members, who live in a family setting at the Center, with bravery and dedication to their country recently testified at a Capitol hearing and helped pass a law: An Act to Enhance the Prevention of and Response to Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Maine National Guard.

In the face of so many obstacles, the women at our Center make me hopeful. For they stood up and testified, despite tremendous pressures, to ensure women who join Maine’s National Guard in the future are treated with the respect due to anyone who swears an oath to their country, willing to give their life for democracy. Women who serve are prepared to face fear for our country but not to be traumatized by those who serve it.

The Sister in Arms Center is the only Center in America providing a home and services for military women who have suffered sexual trauma while serving our country. We’re proud to be able to offer them a sanctuary where they can begin to heal. Many go on to live productive lives. Once they receive help, women statistically are often more resilient with managing post-traumatic symptoms than their male counterparts. But we’re a non-profit that needs substantial ongoing funds to help our residents. If you are interested in helping, please visit our website and donate.

Spring is a time of renewal. Help heal and renew the souls of our female servicemembers whom have never failed to serve Maine and their country.

Since the issue saw the light of day, Gov. Janet Mills has created a permanent advisory council on MST to ensure all survivors have access to resources and to improve the Guard’s response to instances of sexual assault or harassment. At the Center we are cautiously optimistic.