Six months after his arrival in Iwakuni, Corporal Vassas was dead.
The contours of her story resemble those of other women in the military all too closely. In May, army specialist Kaylie Harris, 21, who said she was raped by a man after revealing her homosexuality, committed suicide. In 2018, Army soldier Nicole Burnham, 21, committed suicide after incidents in which soldiers held her against her will, photographed her and assaulted her. Although some fellow soldiers called her a “whore”, “bitch” and “deserving of rape” after reporting the attacks, the military was slow to transfer her out of South Korea, investigation finds from CBS News. In 2009, 20-year-old Marine Carri Leigh Goodwin died of acute alcohol poisoning after she was twice raped and harassed by her commanding officer for reporting the second rape, according to a lawsuit.
Many factors have contributed to a recent increase in suicide rates among military personnel, and they are not fully understood. Accessibility of firearms certainly plays a role: the most common method of suicide in the military is death by firearm. The White House recently announced regulations that will increase the availability of secure storage and safety devices for firearms.
Further research is also needed on possible correlations between military suicide, the prolonged duration of recent wars, and increased traumatic brain injury from increased exposure to improvised explosive devices.
Despite years of effort and tens of millions of dollars invested in research and prevention programs, suicide continues to plague military communities. Last year, there was a statistically significant increase in the rate of suicide deaths among active duty soldiers across all services – the highest rate since 2008, when the Pentagon began keeping detailed records, according to the latest annual report on suicide from the Ministry of Defense.
An independent Pentagon commission created this year preceded its findings on sexual trauma with a letter to the military: “We heard you. “
But in at least some important respects, no one listened to Corporal Vassas, Specialist Harris, Private Burnham, or countless other servicemen who have suffered unbearable trauma while serving their country.
Many military units still don’t take sexual trauma or mental health as seriously as they should and often treat suicide awareness training as a superficial exercise. Few active duty military leaders speak of their own struggles with trauma. Those who do often face derailed careers – something that discourages junior troops from speaking out and seeking help themselves.