Health & Medicine

Veterans ask lawmakers to improve Lexington VA's care for sexual trauma

Therapist Karen Tufts met with some of "Karen’s Survivors", a group of military sexual trauma victims in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 18, 2013. Tufts said some victims have suffered for twenty years in Kentucky, “fighting and begging” for adequate treatment. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Therapist Karen Tufts met with some of "Karen’s Survivors", a group of military sexual trauma victims in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 18, 2013. Tufts said some victims have suffered for twenty years in Kentucky, “fighting and begging” for adequate treatment. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Pentagon officials drew attention to military sexual trauma with a survey this year that showed an estimated 26,000 service members had experienced unwanted sexual contact but did not report the incidents.

In Lexington, a group of military sexual trauma victims have asked State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, and 6th District U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, to help improve military sexual trauma care at Lexington's Veterans Affairs medical facilities.

The group, known as "Karen's Survivors," are veterans and the clients of Lexington therapist Karen Tufts, who retired from the Lexington VA about three years ago and now treats clients on a private basis. Tufts said she treats about 29 women and six men.

Susan Moseley, one of the 29 women, said there is "a lack of a therapeutic environment" for military sexual trauma victims at Lexington's VA facilities on Cooper Drive and Leestown Road. The Herald-Leader does not generally identify people who allege sexual abuse. But Moseley, who said she was a victim of unwanted sexual contact during a three-year stint in the military in the 1990s, said she is speaking out to help others.

After meeting with members of the group several times, Westrom said she is trying to set a date for a "fact-finding" meeting with state and federal officials in Frankfort.

The group's short-term goal is to turn a vacant house on the VA's Leestown Road campus into a center that could be a transitional residence for women after they leave inpatient psychiatric treatment at the hospital and before they move into the community.

The victims say the proposed center could address some long-term issues caused by military sexual trauma — drug addiction, homelessness, anger and unemployment. Veterans who have spent years coping with sexual trauma could mentor those who recently left the military, Moseley said.

"There are ways we can help each other if we are given the space and the ability to do that," said Moseley.

Lexington VA Medical Center spokeswoman Desti Stimes said that "we are open to exploring this possibility."

The survivors group is also asking for improved outpatient care for male and female victims of military sexual trauma and more training on military sexual trauma for all staff, said Tufts.

They hope the Lexington's VA facilities could serve the central part of the United States with a facility where therapists, psychiatrists and nurses were all specially trained in military sexual assault, she said.

A representative of Congressman Barr's office has met with the survivors group and heard their concerns, said his spokeswoman Catherine Gatewood. "Congressman Barr's office is actively engaged in veteran outreach," Gatewood said.

Stimes said VA officials would welcome a meeting with representatives from the group and elected officials to "brief them on the services available to veterans and to explore opportunities."

Stimes said services to treat military sexual trauma victims are available at the VA's Leestown Road division, which offers inpatient treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, mental health, primary care and women's health services, and at the Cooper division, where patients get emergency care, inpatient medical-surgical care, and acute psychiatry services.

VA officials are "strongly committed to ensuring veterans have access to the care they need to recover from military sexual trauma," she said.

Stimes said Lexington's VA has a designated military sexual trauma coordinator, a licensed clinical social worker who serves as a liaison for veterans dealing with the problem as well as helping them access other VA benefits.

Stimes said the Lexington military sexual trauma coordinator provides education to veterans, staff and the community to raise awareness of the problem.

At the VA, an "identifier" in medical records alerts staff that patients have experienced military sexual trauma. The VA offers specialized MST treatment in the outpatient, residential and inpatient settings.

All VA mental health and primary care providers are required to complete training on military sexual trauma. The VA makes accommodations for veterans who do not feel comfortable in mixed-gender treatment settings. The outpatient mental health clinic has a separate area for women who want to wait for their appointments privately, Stimes said.

Tufts said her intention is not to criticize the VA but to support her clients' efforts to get more help. She said she hopes her groups' efforts will encourage more veterans in Kentucky who have suffered from the trauma to come forward.

"We want them to know that we are working to make it possible so that there are special services for them," Tufts said.