Woman's battle in the barracks over sexual harassment - FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston

Woman's battle in the barracks over sexual harassment

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

"It seemed surreal.  Is this for real?  Really?  I'm at work.  I can't in my mind or wildest dreams ever imagine someone touching me, groping me.  I didn't think anyone at work would ever do this."

Romaine Barnett joined the Navy at the young, vulnerable age of 17.  She said she was shocked sexual harassment and assaults were so prevalent.  At the time, Petty Officer Bolling never imagined she would be fighting more to protect her body than her country.

"My fight always was ‘I'm at work right now.  I'm not in a club and dressed inappropriately.  I'm in a uniform that the government issued me'," Romaine said.

She said she was constantly prepared to put up a fight on her naval ship in the Persian Gulf.

"I didn't know what to do," she said.  "Am I going to have to hit somebody today?  What do I do?"

She said her supervisors would not help because they were "in" on the harassment as well.

While she wanted to concentrate on her duties during Desert Storm and Desert Shield, she said she found it disgusting that she was often defending herself from fellow servicemen.

"It was so violating.  You have no regard for me as a person if you would just cross the line after I said no 700 times," she said.

She is far from alone.  Nearly three million women are either active-duty, in the reserves or are veterans.  Depending on who you ask, the statistics on military sexual assaults can vary.  A physician at the Debakey VA Medical Center shared her stats with us:

-- 23 percent of women have reported the problem
-- Other stats show one in three women have been sexually assaulted or harassed in the military
-- One in 15 men have also suffered the same fate

Romaine thinks it is far more than that because women might be too scared or overwhelmed to come forward.

"I don't believe there's any woman in the military who hasn't been harassed in some way.  I just don't believe that," she said.

Sexual trauma can often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.  Dr. Rola Elserag, medical director of the women's health center at Debakey, said the symptoms include:

-- Anxiety
-- Depression
-- Hyper-vigilance
-- Trust issues
-- Difficulty in the workplace
-- Relationship strain

"It can be a very significant impairment in their lifestyle," Elserag said.

Now, there is help for female veterans.

"At the beginning, it was a little uncomfortable because they really had no clue how to treat women.  Most of the veterans were men," Linda Todar said.

Todar never suffered sexual trauma but visits the clinic for her general healthcare.  She was amazed at the difference.  She stopped going to Debakey for years because she felt it was only geared toward men.

The hospital really listened to concerns and hired a program manager to help concentrate more on women.  Pamela Swope is the woman in charge.  All of the patients we talked to said Swope makes all the difference.

Swope said she is proud of how far the Women's Center has come.

"We have a lot of women who now feel safe to come forward and say they've had those experiences.  Now, we can direct them to the care they need," she said.

There's even an entrance just for women.   At this point, women are treated by female caretakers only.

"It's marvelous because you have so many women who have been on the front lines in Iraq, so it's a whole new ball game," Todar said.  "They've come back with same problems the male vets come with.  Now, there's someone to help them take care of it and deal with it."

Research shows it is imperative victims seek help as soon as possible after a sexual assault or harassment.

Romaine is now helping lead the way for women to get help through organizations like Catholic Charities.  She is also helping Lakewood Church launch a new ministry for veterans.

"We want to make sure people know the military is here, not just for sexual trauma but PTSD.  The vet center is here and so are many resources.  The government has brought in a huge initiative to reach women," Romaine said.

Treatment is also very necessary.  Dr. Elserag said many resources are available at the VA medical center, including:

-- Psychiatrist
-- Psychologist
-- Medications
-- Counseling

"Inpatient units are geared toward counseling for our vets," Elserag said.  "We help treat anxiety, depression, and provide tools for victims to learn how to cope with the issues they have and provide with continuity of care, so they can build a trusting relationship with their provider, so they feel they have a place to come to discuss disturbing issues.  The VA does a good job of that."

Romaine blames a lot of military sexual assault and harassment on bad upbringing.

"I've met men whose dad taught them the more women you sleep with, the better!  They don't establish those boundaries," Romain said.  "You have a variety of people who come from all over the world with different ways of thinking.  I can't say there's one vein that runs through men in the military that causes them to abuse women.  I think it's their background, where they come from, and how they see themselves.  They're trying to gain acceptance.  I don't think it's always setting out intentionally to hurt someone.  There is that but by and large, I don't think that's the case.  Most people in the military are 17, 18, 19 years old.  We have that problem at schools.  Talk about in the military where they're paid, carrying a gun, thinking they're somebody."

She believes desperation plays a role as military men are away from home for months and years at a time but she and other women agree: there is no excuse for it.  Every woman should be able to serve her country, without having to battle her "own guys".

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently introduced initiatives to fight this problem, including a special court martial convening authority, training new troops and their commanders, and a special victims unit.

Romaine wants female veterans to know there is a lot of help available in Houston, including the new women's center at the VA hospital.  She also works with Catholic Charities and is helping launch a new Ministry for Veterans at Lakewood Church.

ONLINE:

http://www.houston.va.gov/Women_Veterans.asp

http://www.catholiccharities.org/services/services-help-for-veterans

http://ww2.lakewood.cc/pages/ministries/ministry.aspx?mid=1

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