Abused, raped, ignored: how ‘invisible’ female British military veterans are fighting back

<span>A new strategy will provide support for the high numbers of female veterans who have experienced sexual trauma.</span><span>Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images</span>
A new strategy will provide support for the high numbers of female veterans who have experienced sexual trauma.Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Jennifer joined the Royal Navy at the age of 29. She became an aircraft engineer, winning awards. Two years after signing up, in 2006, she was raped and she was raped again in 2011. She didn’t report either attack, she says, because she didn’t want to risk ­losing her career.

In 2014, she was sexually assaulted by her superior officer and, this time, decided to report the offence. “I tried to make light of it, and move on again… but it wasn’t working.”

During the subsequent investigation, which took over two years, Jennifer says she was bullied and harassed. Her alleged perpetrator had made a counter complaint so she was confined to her base. “I was no longer the victim,” she says. “It’s the military way. They manage situations for the outcome they want.”

A court martial ended in his acquittal. Two years later, in 2018, Jennifer, suffering from trauma, was medically discharged. “I was only months away from my 15-year long service medal,” she says. “I was done.”

This spring the first strategy for female veterans will be published. The Office for Veterans Affairs (OVA) announced in January that it has spent £445,000 to better understand the needs of more than 235,000 women veterans of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and to ­provide ­support for the shockingly high numbers who have experienced military sexual trauma.

In the House of Commons Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans affairs, said: “The point of the strategy, essentially, is to ensure that the voices that have been unheard for too long are heard. I know there is unmet need and pain.” The question is – how best can need and pain be addressed?

“It’s extraordinary that only 2% of research globally focuses on female veterans,” says Dr Lauren Godier-McBard, the co-director of the Centre for Military Women’s Research, established in 2022. “Government has finally begun to realise that many female veterans have different care, health and support needs from those of men. They’ve had different experiences in the services and they haven’t always been good experiences. Women veterans have felt invisible for such a long time.”

In 2021 a collaboration of 30 organisations resulted in the report We Also Served, the first holistic research, funded by OVA, into ex-service women. It revealed that while some veterans remember their forces careers with pride and flourished after leaving, female veterans are two-and-a-half times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than civilian women. They are also more likely to be unemployed and less likely to be claiming benefits.

Older female veterans became recruits when it wasn’t possible for a woman to serve and be married or gay or pregnant. Women were deployed in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan but many feel a lack of acknowledgement for their contribution. One woman, for instance, was asked if she was wearing her husband’s medals.Over 1,000 veteran organisations and charities make up the male-dominated UK veteran support sector but as one woman explained , “What people would say is that, “We’re fair to everyone”. What that means is “we’ll treat everyone like a man”.

Eleven years ago Tony Wright, founder of Forward Assist, a charity based in the north-east that helps veterans of combat, having recognised that women veterans are “a hidden population”, employed Paula Edwards, a mental health trauma therapist specialising in supporting women with complex needs, to investigate further. Working with 100 ex-servicewomen, over half (52%) said they had been assaulted while serving in the armed forces, many internalising the stigma and blame. Some said their complaints about inappropriate and, in some cases, criminal behaviour had been dismissed, their perpetrators promoted. Twenty per cent of the women said they had been in local authority care and 50% had joined to escape a home environment where they suffered a number of adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse. “Statistically, if you’ve been victimised in some way in early life, you are more likely to be victimised again,” Dr Godier-McBard says. “Unfortunately, it creates a compounded issue for some women. They receive negative experiences in the armed forces, which then results in mental ill health and poor wellbeing after service. We definitely come across this pattern in our research on veterans.”

Female soldiers who have been assaulted face a secondary trauma of institutional betrayal, losing trust in those with whom they are expected to fight alongside. One female veteran explained: “You would literally put your life on the line for them… then this awful thing happens to you and it all evaporates.”

Related: ‘It was a hunting ground’: women and sexual assault in the UK armed forces

“We’re still investigating sexual crimes in the armed forces in a misogynistic way,” Edwards says. “Women in the military need to be given choice, respect and dignity. Instead, we are still seeing a victim-blaming culture. As shocking is the extent to which the military will go to cover up these crimes.”

In 2018, Wright and Edwards set up Salute Her, the only charity ­specifically for serving female personnel and veterans. It offers trauma-informed therapy and practical help with housing, employment, compensation claims, benefits and ­navigating civilian life. It supports over 5,000 women and receives five new enquiries a week. Many of the women involved in a Salute Her report, No Man’s Land, published in 2019, also gave evidence to the House of Commons defence sub-committee’s groundbreaking inquiry in 2021, led by Conservative MP and former soldier Sarah Atherton.

The armed forces now have a range of “zero tolerance” policies but Edwards wants more to be done – and speedily. “Changing deeply ingrained cultural attitudes takes time,” she says. “But many of the women do not have time.” The Atherton inquiry recommended, for instance, that military sexual trauma (MST) should be officially recognised, a proposal rejected by the government. One definition of MST is, “any sexual activity during military service in which you are involved against your will or when unable to say no.”

Edwards also wants “moral injury” to be recognised and support and compensation offered. According to Durham University, moral injury refers to, “a profound sense of broken trust …. corrosive to a sense of self.” “Moral injury is very different for women than for men,” Edwards says. “A woman seeing other women being raped, assaulted or bullied who has failed to intervene has to live with that. ”In addition, Salute Her wants an inquiry into the women given a medical discharge and diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), also known as borderline personality disorder.

In 2022, out of 393 women referred to Salute Her, 133 women had been diagnosed with EUPD with damaging consequences for their civilian lives. Its symptoms include intense negative emotions such as panic, shame, terror, impulsive behaviour – self harming, for instance and having upsetting thoughts. “To me, that behaviour is a perfectly natural response to what many of the women have experienced, yet they end up pathologised,” says Edwards.

Anna joined the army at 17, four years ago. She was planning a long-term career. Initially, she says, she found the army “awesome”. Those serving in the armed forces are young. One in five new recruits in 2022 was aged 16 or 17. The Armed Forces Covenant stipulates that military personnel receive consistent support during and post-military service. Yet Child Rights International Network (CRIN), drawing on the forces’ own records, says girls under 18, like Anna, are 10 times as likely as adult female personnel to be victims of sexual offences. CRIN is campaigning to ban recruitment under the age of 18.

In Anna’s case, at engineering camp within months of signing up, she attended a block party with eight male colleagues (she was one of the few women at the camp) at which alcohol was drunk. She left the room for a cigarette and went to the nearest loos. When she came out of a booth, she was raped.

“I knew he would be acquitted,” she says. Almost immediately after reporting the rape, Anna was refused permission to go to on family leave and, instead, punished for consuming alcohol. Partly to avoid her perpetrator, she isolated herself in her room, developed suicidal tendencies and was hospitalised.

A sergeant major who was responsible for Anna’s daily welfare care plan, because she was deemed “vulnerable”, then groomed her into a brief sexual relationship. “Once he got what he wanted, he stopped speaking to me. Working in engineering, I was often the only female in the unit, so the help I could access was male which made it all even more difficult.

“I went to my CO [commanding officer] to make a complaint [about the sergeant major] because it was a breach of trust. My CO clearly saw me as the problem. For him, it was extra work, more admin. His attitude was, ‘It’s not true; she’s making it up’.”

The sergeant major was eventually dishonourably discharged for gross misconduct. On another occasion, a drunk colleague went into Anna’s room uninvited and, on a fourth occasion, while she was still a teenager, she was groped by a corporal during adventure training. Traumatised, she was admitted to hospital with suicidal tendencies. A week before the court martial of her alleged rapist, she was informed she was being considered for a medical discharge. “I was really shocked. On what grounds? I was having cognitive behaviour therapy and getting along fine.”

Last week, Mercer told the Observer: “Women veterans make an invaluable contribution to the armed forces. The upcoming strategy will … recognise their contribution and identify what further tailored support we can provide to meet their specific needs.”

Anna, now 21, was medically discharged last year. She discovered that her medical records included a diagnosis of EUPD. It has prevented her from applying to join the police, as she’d hoped. “It’s on my civilian record and there’s nothing I can do about it. Sexual abuse can be just as bad on civvy street,” she adds. “The only difference is that the army is not just a workplace, it’s a life.”

www.saluteher.co.uk offers support to ex-service women and women currently serving in the armed forces