Army, female veterans, women veterans, sexual abuse, child abuse, poverty, drug use
Army veteran Rhiannon Duncan.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)– When Rhiannon Duncan passed the Army entrance exam at age 18 she saw it as a way to escape her father, who had sole custody of her at the time.

She said her father had been sexually abusing her since she was 15, the point at which he also began sharing his drugs with her.

“I am going to be honest with you, my dad started using amphetamines with me when I was 15 years old,” Duncan said in an interview at the headquarter offices here of Volunteers of America, a nationwide religious aid agency with storefronts often visible in hard-hit communities.

Among its other programs, Volunteers for America runs some that focus on stabilizing homeless veterans such as Duncan. (The Sacramento program where Duncan sought and got help is the subject of our second story.)

Researchers estimate that in the United States about 1-in-6 boys and 1-in-4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. About 30 percent of those who sexually abuse children are relatives of the child, such as fathers, uncles or cousins, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

By the end of her freshman year in high school, in a suburban area of Sacramento, Duncan was sneaking off to the bathroom to take drugs. Duncan was one of many students at Foothill High School who qualified for either free or reduced lunches.

She describes her father as abusive and drug addicted and her mother as overworked. Her mother, after graduating from a nursing program, picked up two full time jobs as a registered nurse, which included working a “graveyard,” or night, shift.

When Duncan told her mother about her father’s abuse, her mother did not believe her and blamed her instead.

Both her parents recently died, both at age 50, from causes related to a drug addiction they passed on to all three children. Last year her brother was hospitalized for an overdose and attempted suicide. Her sister, a Chicago mother of two, has struggled with addiction, homelessness and incarceration.

Reasons to Conceal

Like many survivors of child abuse, Duncan, who is now 32 years old, told very few people about her father’s sexual and psychological abuse.

“Sexual assault victims frequently do not disclose their assaults to anyone for a variety of reasons,” Heidi Zinzow, a licensed clinical psychologist who teaches at Clemson University, a public research university in South Carolina, said in an email interview. “These may include shame, guilt, embarrassment, fear of reprisal from the perpetrator, fear of being blamed and concerns about getting involved with the criminal justice process.”

The overwhelming majority of reports of sexual assault do not result in the arrest of a suspect, according to a 2012 report on policing and prosecuting sexual assault in Los Angeles City and County.

Like Duncan, many female veterans suffered trauma and violence prior to military service, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Services. In some studies, the findings are staggering, with more than 25 percent of all female veterans, by researchers’ conservative estimate, sexually abused in childhood. That places them at risk for “cumulative” trauma that can undermine efforts to reenter civilian life.

Duncan joined the Army in May 2001, straight out of high school and right after passing the Armed Services’ Vocational Aptitude Battery admissions test.

After a year of boot camp and training, it was time for her to start active duty and she was feeling shaky.

“I will never forget when I turned 19 years old,” she said. “I was flying over Los Angeles at night time on a Friday on my way to Korea and I was crying because I did not want to leave the country. I did not want to join the Army, it was not just easy for me.”

Three Years of Active Duty

She spent three years in active duty, with top-secret security clearance. As a message processor, she installed, operated and maintained computer networks during overseas deployments in South Korea, Thailand and Japan.

But it was never easy. Problems began to build for her at age 20, after her first year in the military, when she married another soldier, a man she met in South Korea.

She said her new husband’s infidelities overwhelmed her and in February 2004 she went back to taking illegal drugs. Around that time, she ran into performance problems, lost rank and lost pay. She was discharged under honorable conditions after being drug tested in May 2004.

Until that point, Duncan said she had been drug free for three years in the Army. But a combination of factors–the basic demon of addiction, the rocky new marriage, problems from her childhood–sent her back to drugs.

Before being released, she tried to get the Army to take her back. She apologized to her company commander but at that time the war in Iraq had started and Duncan said the Army did not have time to review her case.

“I really wanted another chance,” she said. “I knew I made a mistake, I made a bad decision; I was willing to correct it. I needed help but I was not given the opportunity to do that.”

Back in the civilian life she had fled at age 18, Duncan had little notion of what to do, where to turn. She was ashamed and embarrassed about being discharged.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a broad range of benefits. Depending on criteria such as disabilities and length of active duty, veterans may receive health care, financial assistance, education and housing. Some benefits extend to family members.

However, the VA estimates that 1 million veterans have reported not having any form of health insurance coverage. Of these million, approximately 600,000 are currently eligible to enroll in VA health care, Meagan Lutz, a spokesperson at the Office of Veteran Affairs, said in an email interview.

Different Worlds

Duncan didn’t think she had any medical coverage once she left the military. To her, life inside and outside the Army were separate worlds. “The VA and the military were very different to me,” she said.

It was not until two years after Duncan’s discharge–when she was undergoing a six-month drug treatment program in Sacramento–that she learned she did have medical eligibility, among other benefits.

When she first left the military, Duncan lived with family members. In the summer of 2005, she moved out. For about eight months, she worked as a prostitute, connecting with clients via online advertising and meeting in Sacramento hotels.

Duncan decided to stop selling her body when she met a man who at the time was dealing drugs. They became intimate partners but their life together was quickly disrupted when he was sentenced to five years in Corcoran, a male-only state prison in California’s Kings County, for his involvement in a car accident.

In May 2006 Duncan delivered her first son in Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael, about five miles from her mother’s home in Antelope, Calif. He had traces of methamphetamine in his urine.

The state’s child welfare agency allowed Duncan to take her infant back home with a list of tasks to complete, including parenting classes, weekly drug testing and residential drug treatment. When she did not fulfill them, the agency issued a protective custody warrant for the infant. Two sheriffs and another state official took him away and he was placed in a temporary foster family residence.

Duncan entered a residential court-ordered drug treatment program for six months, hoping to get her son back afterwards. In May 2007, she was finally granted sole legal and physical custody of her son shortly after his first birthday.

Two years later, the father of her son got out of prison and began working with his father to run two scrap-metal recycling yards. When the yards closed in early 2014, he switched to truck driving.

In July 20014 Duncan began to work with Volunteers of America, which runs a holistic housing program for homeless veterans.

Duncan has two children now and is clean and sober. This year she has been going to school full time and hopes one day to become a drug counselor and perhaps even start her own nonprofit advocacy group for other victims of incest.

This two-part series was partially funded by the Solutions Journalism Network.

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