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Lesbian Veteran Discharged After Rape

by Joe Siegel
Contributor
Thursday Sep 15, 2011
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After dropping out of Johnston High School in 1999, Valerie Desautel joined the Army in the hope of serving her country and creating a better life for herself. Three years later, a man whom she had met while at an officer’s club raped her. And the military discharged Desautel after she told an officer that she is gay.

Desautel recently sat down with EDGE to share her story.

Desautel went to basic training in South Carolina. She was transferred to Fort Lee in Virginia in 2002. Desautel, who was 20-years-old, transitioned to active duty from the reserves and was training for a job as a supply specialist on a base in Hawaii. She said she was having a "great time" in the military until one fateful night in March 2002.

Desautel said she and a group of friends from her unit went to a nightclub for non-commissioned officers. After a few hours of drinking, Desautel’s friends left her alone at the club. Desautel said she accepted a ride home from an older man she met. Instead, the man took her to a hotel room and raped her.

The next day, Desautel was treated at Southside Regional Medical Center in Petersburg, Va. A nurse interviewed her and took blood and urine samples, and a doctor performed a rape examination. The entire procedure lasted about four hours.

Afterward, an officer from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division who drove Desautel back to her barracks assured her that there was more than enough evidence to prosecute the rapist: DNA, fingerprints, security camera video.

She said a female Army investigator interrogated her about the rape that night. When the investigator expressed doubts that the sex was anything but consensual, Desautel said she was gay.

"I was allowed to talk with the (base) chaplain," Desautel recalled. "He told me I was going to Hell (for being gay.)"

Three weeks after the rape, Desautel took the advice of a military therapist and checked herself into the medical center’s psychiatric ward. A doctor diagnosed her with major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. She was prescribed an antidepressant and sleeping medication.

On her fourth day in the hospital as Desautel was preparing to be discharged, two Army investigators showed up. They took her aside and asked her to consent to the release of her medical records from the hospital.

Army investigators knew that Desautel had admitted during her initial interview about the rape that she is gay.

Desautel was "devastated" when she was told that the military was kicking her out. The JAG lawyer with whom she spoke advised her not to fight the discharge. (Her discharge was "uncharacterized" - meaning neither honorable nor dishonorable - due to her short length of service.)

Desautel returned to Rhode Island on May 24, 2002. At the time of her discharge, she was told that she didn’t qualify for military benefits-her PTSD was "service-related," and therefore qualified her for benefits.

Desautel contacted U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and shared her story. She explained to Reed that she had no benefits and no way to get her prescription drugs or to see a therapist for her PTSD. Over a year later, Desautel received a letter from Reed’s office along with a copy of the Army’s response to Reed’s inquiry stating that despite a "thorough investigation ... unfortunately, all efforts to identify and locate the suspect met with negative results." Though Army investigators had "probable cause" to believe that Desautel had been raped, the identity of her assailant remained unknown and the case had been closed.

Desautel had also requested assistance from civil rights lawyers and the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and other LGBT organizations, but they turned her away.

Since Nov. 2009, however, Desautel has been receiving veterans’ disability benefits. This year, with the help of American Veterans, a government-financed veterans’ assistance group, the military agreed to raise her disability rating from 30 percent to 50 percent, increasing her benefits to $770 per month. She also acknowledges the support of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which led the fight to repeal "don’t ask, don’t tell."

After undergoing years of therapy, Desautel has taken steps to put her life back together. She now operates her own tattoo studio in West Warwick and stays in contact with friends from the military.

Even though DADT has been repealed, Desautel has no desire to rejoin the military. The advice she gives to anyone who wants to be a member of the armed forces is to keep their sexual orientation private-especially if they are LGBT.

"I don’t think it’s safe," she said, noting a high percentage of the women with whom she served were lesbians.

Sexual assaults are quite common in the military, according to Desautel, who knew many women who are victims. She said they chose not to report the incidents in order to continue their military careers.

More than 9 years after the rape and discharge, Desautel feels she did what she felt was right in telling about the rape and her sexual orientation to her commanding officers.

"I don’t regret reporting it," said Desautel. "I regret fighting for a country that wouldn’t take care of me."

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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