WATERVILLE — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree gets calls every week from men and women who report they were sexually assaulted or harassed while serving in the military.

Some calls are from veterans who served as far back as World War II and Vietnam.

Some reported the crimes to their superiors at the time; others did not for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was fear of losing their positions. Many who reported the sexual assaults were ignored; many have still not received the help they need.

The calls come from all over the country.

Pingree, D-1st District, has been working to help those veterans get treatment. She authored a bill named for Milbridge veteran Ruth Moore that would make it easier for veterans to qualify for benefits for mental health problems resulting from sexual abuse they suffered while in the military.

She and Sen. John Tester, a Democrat from Montana, want President Barack Obama to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue benefits to sexual assault victims as it does combat veterans with PTSD.

“We’re feeling very positive about that,” Pingree said Wednesday during a visit to Waterville.

Pingree spoke about the issue with Mayor Karen Heck as they toured City Hall and downtown.

The U.S. Defense Department recently reported that 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military in 2012, but only about 3,000 were reported and 300 prosecuted, according to Pingree.

Pingree appeared in “The Invisible War,” an Academy Award-nominated film released last year that documents the struggles of veterans who were raped or harassed while serving in the military, but whose attackers were not punished. Many have trouble getting the medical and pyschological help they need.

In many cases, commanders ignore reports of sexual abuse and that’s one of the focuses of the documentary. Pingree said Wednesday that efforts by the military to “train the way out” of the problem did not work.

“Most recent surveys show people haven’t changed behavior patterns,” she said.

Pingree wants to see the military judicial process change.

“I think we’ll see some change, but I think it’s got to be more dramatic than it has been.”

For a long time the idea of changing the military code of justice was taboo, according to Pingree. In the military, everything is about having a coherent unit and not ratting out your buddies.

But change is critical, and victims must get the help they need, she said.

“I’m hopeful, but I’m disappointed about how long we’ve already made people wait,” she said.

Skeek Frazee, constituent services representative for Pingree, said she fields calls from military sexual assault victims across the country who say their congressional representative will not help them. 

Frazee, who worked 20 years on domestic violence issues and is familiar with the effects of trauma, helps with case work for people in District 1 and provides information to people in other states. Victims who call may have been assaulted many years ago, but still suffer from the effects, Frazee said.

“Pretty amazing to me is to see the impact of trauma that is left to fester,” she said.

Pingree new to district

Pingree’s downtown visit Wednesday represented one of her first formal tours of the city since she opened her Main Street office in January in the former office of U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-District 2.

Waterville and Winslow formerly were in Michaud’s district, but that changed when a plan was approved to balance the population of the state’s two congressional districts.

Following her downtown tour, which included visits to Barrels Community Market, Waterville Opera House and the former Levine’s clothing store, now under renovation, Pingree held an open house in her office.

That office is staffed by former state Rep. Pamela Trinward, D-Waterville, a 12-year member of the city’s Board of Education.

Guests at the open house included Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Joseph Jabar; Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties; Thomas College President Laurie Lachance and Waterville Board of Education members Maryanne Bernier and Joan Phillips-Sandy.

Attorney Tobi Schneider said at the open house she applauds Pingree for her work to help military sexual assault victims.

“I was shocked by the numbers and devastated,” Schneider said. “I couldn’t get over the number of cases that have been pushed under the carpet.”

Schneider, whose mother is a veteran U.S. Marine, said she was glad to see Pingree in “The Invisible War” and relieved the issue is in the forefront.

“I’m glad the numbers have come out,” she said.

During the walking tour, Pingree responded to questions about her efforts to pressure the Department of Defense to buy footwear from U.S. manufacturers.

Under the Berry Amendment, a federal law enacted in 1941, the military is required to buy uniforms and equipment made in the U.S. But the U.S. Army and Air Force issue vouchers to new recruits who buy athletic footwear for physical training, which exempts the footwear from the Berry Amendment.
Pingree and Michaud introduced a bill to reverse that.

Pingree on Wednesday emphasized that total credit goes to Michaud for the effort. He has worked on it a long time, she said.

“I feel we haven’t had enough progress on this issue,” she said. “This is one of those issues that, when you tell people about it, they say, ‘Really?’ Everyone thinks we outfit the military in all American-made products. I think it’s just shocking to people.” 

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority shareholder of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and Portland Press Herald.

Following the open house at her office, Pingree attended the annual Alfond Youth Center annual appeals dinner, where she was keynote speaker. The center houses the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

 

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