A Soldier’s Story – A nightmare that lasted nine years

By Lynn Arditi
Published July 24, 2011

Valerie Desautel. The Providence Journal/John Freidah
Valerie Desautel. The Providence Journal/John Freidah

By Lynn Arditi
Journal Staff Writer

Pvt. Valerie J. Desautel swore under oath to an Army investigator that she would tell the truth about the night she was raped.

She was 20, a fresh-faced soldier from Rhode Island who was in training at Fort Lee, Va.

Desautel admitted to the investigator taking her statement that she’d been socializing the previous night at an officer’s club, got drunk, and accepted a ride from a man whom she’d only just met.

This article was published on page A1 of The Providence Journal,  July 21, 2011
This article was published in The Providence Journal, Page A1, on July 21, 2011

The officer sounded skeptical. You went with this man to a hotel, she remembers the officer saying, and you want me to believe that it wasn’t consensual?

Then, before the young private had time to think it through, she blurted out the words she’d been warned never to say in the military: “I’m gay…”

Eight weeks later, plagued by anxiety and flashbacks, she was ordered to pack her bags and was handed a plane ticket home. Her discharge sheet read: “homosexual admission.”

“Instead of rehabilitating me,” she said, “they threw me out like a piece of trash.”

Military police investigated the rape, but nobody was ever charged. The only person punished in connection with the crime was the victim herself.

It’s been nine years since the rape investigation that ended Desautel’s military career. Since then, she has fought alcohol addiction and psychic trauma, guilt and shame. She has also sought out veterans groups and victims’ advocates to get treatment, financial assistance and legal representation so that she can move forward with her life.

Now, as the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” comes to an end — President Obama on Friday notified Congress that the Defense Department is ready to allow gays to serve openly in the military — Desautel has resolved to tell her story.

One morning earlier this year, inside the West Warwick tattoo studio that Desautel opened in 2009, the former Army private sat bolt upright as she recounted her life before and after the rape. Her mother, Teresa Berube, pulled a chair beside her daughter to offer moral support.

In the days and weeks after the rape, Desautel’s mother called the military officials so frequently for updates on the investigation that an exasperated superior blurted out: Tell your mother to stop calling! So when the military finally sent Desautel home, her mother felt relieved. At least, Berube recalls thinking, Valerie is safe now.

But the ordeal was far from over. As her mother puts it, “she was completely broken.”

On a Friday night in March 2002, Valerie Jean Desautel and a group of friends from her unit at Fort Lee were socializing and drinking at a nightclub for non-commissioned officers.

Desautel, 20, had joined the Army Reserves three years after dropping out of Johnston High School and was immersed in military life. She loved the discipline, the camouflage uniforms and the regulation black combat boots which she polished religiously. She had recently switched to active duty and was training for a job as a supply specialist on a base in Hawaii.

Valerie Desautel
Valerie Desautel

The events that follow are detailed in a copy of the statement that Desautel gave to a member of the military police the morning after she was raped, along with medical records and documents about the military police’s investigation she obtained recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents, which she shared with a Journal reporter, arrived with names of all military personnel blacked out.

At the nightclub, Desautel was feeling homesick, so she went to the club’s lobby to use the pay phone to call her girlfriend back home. A man she’d never met before walked over. He asked her if she needed a ride home, and they struck up a conversation. He bought her a Bud Light beer. She had already drunk six or seven Long Island Iced Teas, a highball made with vodka, gin, tequila and rum.

The man looked older, perhaps 30 to 40 years old, and was dressed in dark slacks and a plaid shirt unbuttoned over a dark T-shirt. He said his name was “Ravon” and referred to a military job classification — “X-92Y instructor”– which he said he formerly held at the same school where Desautel was taking classes. In the military, rank denotes not only authority but also respect and trustworthiness. So when he told her his rank, she would say later, she instinctively trusted him.

They talked until the club was about to close for the night, and then he offered to drive her back to her barracks.

Valerie J. Desautel (right) and her friend, Danielle (Russo) Whitmer, while training at the Fire Academy in San Angelo, TX in 2000. Whitmer, who left the military in 2000, now lives with her husband and their two sons in Reading, MA. Photo courtesy of Valerie Desautel
Valerie J. Desautel (right) and her friend, Danielle (Russo) Whitmer, while training at the Fire Academy in San Angelo, TX in 2000. Whitmer, who left the military in 2000, now lives with her husband and their two sons in Reading, MA. Photo courtesy of Valerie Desautel

Seated in the passenger seat of his Jeep, she confided that she’d been having a bad night because guys were hitting on her and she didn’t like it. She said she had a “boyfriend” she loved back home — her standard lie so she didn’t risk word getting out that she was gay. He said that he had a girlfriend whom he was serious about too, so she had nothing to worry about.

But she was worried. She was not yet 21 and she’d been drinking. If she showed up at her barracks drunk and the soldier on desk duty noticed, she could get in trouble. So when he suggested that they get a hotel room and he’d drive her back the next morning, it seemed to make sense. It was common for friends in the service to rent a hotel room after a night of drinking so they could sleep it off.

It’s OK with me, she told him, but I don’t want anything sexual. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you can take me back to my company now.

Not at all, he reassured her.

At Fort Lee Lodging, a motel on base used by military personnel, they split the cost of the $42 room — he paid his half in cash — and then went upstairs to the second floor. He offered to sleep on top of the covers. She asked him to turn away and she took off her jeans, leaving on her T-shirt and underwear. Then she slid under the covers and fell asleep.

She doesn’t know how long she’d slept when she awoke to find the man fondling her.

No, stop! she said, as she tried to push him away.

Then she passed out. At about 6 a.m., she was awakened by a man’s voice saying, “Hurry up, get up, get dressed.”

The man who called himself Ravon was already dressed. She was naked except for her socks.

Reports of high-profile rapes in the military have made media headlines for at least two decades, dating to the infamous Tailhook scandal in 1991, when 87 women were sexually assaulted by more than 100 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officers at symposium in Las Vegas.

More recently, 15 women and 2 men who allege they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the service filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Defense Department last February in the federal court in eastern Virginia.

The plaintiffs allege that when they tried to report the crimes, they were harassed, ostracized and, in some cases, retaliated against by their superiors. More than 2,600 service members reported that they were raped or sexually assaulted while in the military during fiscal 2010, according to a Department of Defense report released in March. Other groups, such as The Palm Center, a California-based research institute, estimated that the number of rapes alone last year exceeded 4,700.

But even the Defense Department’s own surveys suggest that only about 13.5 percent of all sexual assault victims report the crimes.

A spokesman for the Army Garrison in Fort Lee, Va. declined to answer questions about Desautel’s rape case, citing privacy laws.

“The Army treats all such allegations very seriously,” Stephen J. Baker said in an e-mail, “and is dedicated to maintaining a climate that minimizes sexual assault incidents, encourages victims to report incidents without fear, and ensures leaders thoroughly investigate allegations of sexual assault and take appropriate administrative and disciplinary actions.”

The morning after Desautel was raped, she showed up sobbing near her barracks and a captain drove her to Southside Regional Medical Center, a civilian hospital in Petersburg, Va. (The medical center at the Army’s base in Fort Lee wasn’t equipped to perform a rape examination.)

A nurse interviewed her and took blood and urine samples, and a doctor performed a rape examination. The entire process took about four hours.

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

But it wasn’t long before Desautel began to feel as though she was a suspect.

Valerie Desautel (left) and another soldier during field training in San Angelo, TX in 2000. Photo courtesy of Valerie Desautel.
Valerie Desautel (left) and another soldier during field training in San Angelo, TX in 2000. Photo courtesy of Valerie Desautel.

That evening, she sat opposite a female Army investigator to recount the rape. The room was small, with a desk between them. She would later learn that the room had a one-way mirror from which other officers observed her interview. At one point, the investigator propped a foot on the edge of her desk, picked up a folder, and slapped it down like a gauntlet.

You went to a hotel room? And you want me to believe it wasn’t consensual?

The challenge threw her. So she answered with the truth. “I’m gay…”

Then, her stomach lurched. She doubled over a waste basket and vomited.

The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which is expected to end in late September, provides no legal protections for service members who admit they are gay in an effort to further a criminal investigation.

In March of last year, however, at the urging of groups such as the Washington-based Service Members Legal Defense Network, the military added new protections for service members who disclose their homosexuality to physicians, psychologists, chaplains or lawyers, Aaron D. Tax, the group’s former legal director, said. But the military refused to extend the same protections to crime victims, he said.

Despite Desautel’s best efforts — she reviewed photographs of Jeeps, worked with an artist to create a composite sketch of her assailant, and even conducted “stakeouts” of the club with other soldiers — with no license plate number or other identifying information, investigators kept coming up dry. Even the motel’s security video taken on the night of the rape was too poorly lit for investigators to identify the man who had called himself “Ravon.”

Days passed, then weeks. Nobody was arrested.

Three weeks after she was raped, tormented by nightmares and fear that the rapist would retaliate against her for reporting the crime, she 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.

Desautel’s admission of homosexuality was one strike against her. The other was a urine test conducted the morning of the rape that showed the presence of THC, a chemical compound found in marijuana. ( Desautel denies using marijuana, and no follow-up test was conducted to confirm the results.)

In military rape cases, lesser crimes are often used against the victim to discourage them from pursuing charges, Greg Jacob, a Marine Corps veteran and policy director for the New York-based nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network, said. “Often it’s retaliatory. They basically leverage that in order to protect the assailant.”

On her fourth day in the hospital’s psych ward, 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. But the investigation report states there was no evidence to corroborate the statement.

The investigators had learned that on the morning after the rape, Desautel had told a nurse at the hospital that her last sexual contact had been with a woman.

Because her rape exam was conducted at a civilian hospital, the investigators “would very likely need her permission” to get her medical records, said Bridget J. Wilson, a San Diego lawyer specializing in military law, who consults for the Service Members Legal Defense Network.

“Initially,” the Army report reads, “PFC DESAUTEL was hesitant to give consent…. She stated because there were things in there that if the military found out she could get in trouble for…. Specifically the homosexual issue came up and was worried if her chain of command knew. SA [blacked out] informed her that because she had made admission of her being a homosexual then this office had an obligation to report that information to her chain of command….”

Desautel recalls the conversation but doesn’t remember whether she signed a medical release.

A tattoo on Valerie Desautel's leg depicts dog tags -- one with her abbreviated last name and one with the rainbow colors, a symbol of gay pride. The Providence Journal/John Freidah
A tattoo on Valerie Desautel’s leg depicts dog tags — one with her abbreviated last name and one with the rainbow colors, a symbol of gay pride. The Providence Journal/John Freidah

Two weeks after she was released from the psych ward, military records show, the Army informed Desautel that it had evidence she’d used marijuana and advised her of her right to a lawyer.

The Army lawyer assigned to her case explained that she had the right to an administrative hearing on the drug and homosexual disclosure charges. But the lawyer, she recalls, said the board probably would rule to discharge her.

Even if she succeeded in fighting the drug charge, which could take six months to a year, he said, she could still be dismissed for homosexual admission. She could never live a “normal” life as a homosexual in the military, she recalls him saying. On the other hand, if she signed a statement waiving her right to a hearing she could go home.

The soldier who had dreamed of some day becoming a medic now just wanted this nightmare to end. So, she signed. (Her discharge was “uncharacterized” – meaning neither honorable nor dishonorable – due to her short length of service.)

On May 24, 2002, Desautel was given a one-way plane ticket back to Rhode Island. At the time of her discharge, she said, she was told that she didn’t qualify for military benefits. But what she didn’t know then was that her PTSD was “service-related,” and therefore qualified her for benefits.

Instead, she left the Army with only a two months’ supply of antidepressants and her discharge form — DD Form 214 — which stated the reason for her separation: “Homosexual Admission.”

Desautel moved back into the three-bedroom apartment in Warwick with her mother, stepfather and older sister, but the reunion was rocky.

She couldn’t sleep or eat much and she was constantly agitated. She often erupted in angry outbursts. They all needed a break, so Desautel and her best friend went to stay with her friend’s parents in Hollywood Beach, Fla.

Desautel tended bar and served cocktails to tourists on the beach. Most mornings, she was on the phone, calling the military police in Fort Lee for updates on the investigation. She also called civil-rights lawyers, veterans’ advocates and anyone who would listen.

She wrote to U.S. Sen. Jack Reed for help in October 2002, describing how she was discharged for homosexuality after reporting that she’d been raped, and how she had no benefits and no way to get her prescription drugs or see a therapist for her PTSD. Reed, in turn, wrote to Army Major General Joe G. Taylor and requested that he review Desautel’s case.

More than a year after the rape, in July 2003, 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.

The news hit her hard. For more than a year, she’d channeled her anger and grief into pressing Army investigators to track down her assailant. She thought, now what?

For the next six years, Desautel worked at a string of waitress jobs, calming her nerves with cigarettes and alcohol. She had no health insurance and no medical treatment for her PTSD.

In 2009, when the girlfriend with whom she’d been living broke off the relationship, she hit bottom. Memories of the rape flooded back. She was afraid to be alone at night, imagining that she was being attacked. She slept on her couch, fully dressed, in case she had to get up and run. She drank herself to sleep.

One night she drank so heavily, she nearly died, she said.

She knew she needed help. She returned to Rhode Island and, at the urging of her grandmother, who works at the Veterans Administration in Providence, gathered her Army papers and showed up at the sprawling complex off Chalkstone Avenue.

It turned out she’d been eligible for benefits all along.

Any veteran who has a medical condition, such as PTSD, which the military determines is “service-related,” can walk into a VA hospital and receive treatment — regardless of length of military service, Jack McMahon, senior veterans service representative at the Providence Veterans Affairs Regional Office, said. But the military benefits system is complex, McMahon said, and there is a lot of misinformation.

Pick a memory, write it down, and then say how it makes you feel, her therapist instructed.

It was 2010, and Desautel met weekly with her therapist at the PTSD clinic in the VA complex in Providence.

Her emotions seemed to race off the page.

“I just did what I was suppose to thinking that it would lead to justice. I fully cooperated with the doctors, police, and military even when I didn’t want to. (That makes me feel very angry that they did not hold up their end of the deal.)”

Slowly, she has been able to talk through the pain, to neutralize her fears.

Nine years after the rape, she has begun to heal. She has overcome the shame and “self-blame,” and has reached out to veterans groups and victims’ assistance organizations for help. She has learned to trust again.

At age 29, she has her life back.

Valerie Desautel. The Providence Journal/John Freidah
Valerie Desautel. The Providence Journal/John Freidah

Since November 2009, she has been receiving veterans’ disability benefits, and 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 up to 50 percent, increasing her benefits to $770 per month.

The money helps pay the rent on her small apartment behind her tattoo studio. The VA also is paying her tuition to Community College of Rhode Island, where she is studying for an associate’s degree in fine arts. In addition to paying for her books, a lap top computer and a camera, the VA gives her another $550-a-month student stipend.

By telling her story, she says, she hopes to encourage other women in the military who are victims of rape or sexual assault to get help, to resist those who might try to silence them and to demand that the military hold their abusers accountable. She recently signed a retainer with the law firm that filed the class action lawsuit against the Defense Department so she can be added to the list of plaintiffs.

“I feel like the military has taken everything from me,” she said one recent afternoon, “and the one thing I have left is my voice.”

larditi@projo.com / 277-7335