July 15, 2012

Bill Nemitz: A Mainer testifies for all with invisible wounds

It's been just over a year since Ruth Moore went public -- sort of -- with her story.

click image to enlarge

Ruth Moore is shown outside her home in Milbridge. This week, she will tell the House Committee on Veterans Affairs what happened on a naval base in the Azores 25 years ago.

Courtesy photo

She told WCSH-TV reporter Kathleen Shannon how she'd been raped twice while serving in the U.S. Navy. But she did so on the condition that the station change her name, black out her face and disguise her voice.

No longer.

"I want to be there for other women and men so they know there can be a good outcome from this," Ruth, 43, said Friday as a rooster crowed outside her rural home in the Down East town of Milbridge. "I know my testimony is important."

On Tuesday, Ruth, her husband, Butch, and their 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, will make the three-and-a-half-hour drive to the Portland International Jetport. From there, they'll fly another hour to Washington, D.C.

Then on Wednesday, they'll head for Capitol Hill, where Ruth will take a deep breath, sit down in front of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and, at long last, set the record straight on what happened to her on a naval base in the Azores 25 long year ago.

The hearing is titled "Invisible Wounds: Examining the Disability Compensation Process for Victims of Military Sexual Trauma." That process, for a big chunk of Ruth's troubled life, was actually one of denial.

She was 18 at the time.

She'd grown up in nearby Pembroke and enlisted in the Navy during her senior year at Washington Academy in Machias because her family couldn't afford college -- they were so poor that the local game warden would quietly drop off the carcasses of poached deer. The military was Ruth's only ticket to higher education and a better life.

Or so she thought. Two months after Ruth arrived at the Azores fresh out of boot camp and training as an apprentice aerographer's mate, her immediate supervisor, a petty officer, raped her outside a local club. At the same time, he infected her with the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia.

"I made a complaint to the chaplain," Ruth recalled. "And nothing was done -- except I was raped again (by the same officer) in retaliation."

Stuck on the other side of the Atlantic, alone, traumatized and terrified of what might happen next, Ruth eventually swallowed a handful of acetaminophen and ibuprofen pills in an attempt to kill herself.

When that failed, she went back to the chaplain. "If you don't get me the hell off this island," she told him, "I will swim off this island. And you won't know and they won't find me."

The next thing Ruth knew, she was in the psychiatric unit at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Her diagnosis: borderline personality disorder.

Her attacker was neither charged nor disciplined.

"I wasn't crazy. I never was crazy," Ruth said. "They put me on a ward with people who were absolutely certifiable. They had people with severe schizophrenia. They had people with what appeared to be bipolar disorder. They had me with people who were little higher than a vegetative state."

And a few months later, they had Ruth gone. She was honorably discharged -- but only after Navy officials pinned the "borderline personality disorder" label to her permanent record and persuaded her to waive all claims against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ruth had married another sailor just before deployment -- he too was from Washington County. All of her health-care needs, the Navy assured her, would be covered through him.

"I didn't know what was going on," Ruth said.

The rapes, the stigma of a mental illness that in fact didn't exist, the dream so traumatically derailed -- it all stayed with Ruth. Her sexually transmitted disease led to chronic gynecological problems -- she blames the chlamydia for nine miscarriages she suffered during the 1990s.

Add to that the glaring symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder -- the panic attacks both day and night, the migraine headaches, the insomnia -- and it's little wonder that by 1997, Ruth's marriage had dissolved and she found herself living out of her van.

That's when Ruth met Butch while working for a local blueberry farm. They married in 2000 and without him, Ruth said, "I probably wouldn't be alive."

Despite the waiver she signed, Ruth had tried early on to apply for disability benefits through the Veterans Benefits Administration, but was denied. She tried again in 2003 and was denied again.

Then she sought help from Disabled American Veterans -- an independent organization that for almost a century has helped veterans obtain the benefits to which they're entitled.

Thanks in large part to the DAV, Ruth managed to obtain a 30-percent disability rating -- for "depression" -- from the Veterans Benefits Administration. But she was again denied benefits for PTSD because, she was told, "I did not submit enough evidence to prove that I was raped."

Ruth tried over and over to work -- she figures she held 30 jobs over 23 years. But the myriad of PTSD triggers inevitably left her unable to continue.

She's instinctively terrified of male supervisors. She often panics in crowded places. She suffers flashbacks of the rapes "all the time."

She once went to work for a dentist who liked to "pick up his female employees from behind and carry them around the office." They thought it was fun. Ruth, who soon quit, considered it hell on earth.

Even the smell of her attacker's brand of aftershave to this day immediately causes "this sharp, acrid taste in my mouth," Ruth said.

"I wish I could work. I truly do," she insisted. "I hate being an imposition on society -- and that's what people consider me, an imposition on society."

In 2008, Ruth and her family moved to Vermont for what they hoped would be a fresh start. There, at a Veterans Health Administration center in White River Junction, Ruth finally found a military sexual trauma unit that performed a top-to-bottom review of her records.

They found not only that doctors' notes from Bethesda were mysteriously missing from her file, but also that someone along the way had mistakenly added "traumatic brain injury" to Ruth's already false diagnosis.

Finally, in January 2010, Ruth got a letter from the Veterans Benefits Administration acknowledging that yes, she had been sexually assaulted, and yes, she was entitled to a 70 percent disability rating along with a finding that she was unemployable.

Translation: More than two decades after she was raped and declared mentally ill, Ruth finally received some semblance of compensatory justice.

"That was the first time I ever had anything in writing that said it happened to me," Ruth said, her voice breaking.

The family moved back to Milbridge, where they now raise their own chickens, goats, turkeys, vegetables and try as best they can to get on with life.

But when Ruth heard last year that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree was drafting legislation requiring the Veterans Benefits Administration to lower the burden of proof for claims of military sexual trauma -- much like it already has for combat-related claims of PTSD -- she knew she had to help.

That led to last year's television interview, albeit from the shadows with a voice that bore no resemblance to hers. And that led to this week's hearing, where Ruth will step forward for all the world to see and, at long last, tell Congress about her 23-year nightmare.

Her biggest fear?

"They'll hear the words, but will they understand the depth of it?" Ruth said. "Are their minds open to understanding it or is it a formality to shut people up?"

According to the Department of Defense, an estimated one in five women who seek care from the Veterans Health Administration answer "yes" when asked if they experienced sexual trauma during their service. Other studies have put the sexual-trauma rate for all women in the military closer to one in four.

Pingree, who along with Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has become increasingly vocal in recent years on behalf of military sexual trauma victims, said in an email Saturday that Ruth's story mirrors countless others where a sexual assault is denied or covered up and benefits are thus withheld because "the attack was never acknowledged in the first place."

"Ruth fought that fight for over two decades," Pingree said. "She didn't give up and has finally reclaimed her life. She is an unbelievably brave and persistent woman and the way she stuck it out is an inspiration. But at the same time it's an outrage that someone like Ruth has to fight that battle in the first place."

So why keep fighting now that she's finally won? Why not just wrap herself in the tranquility of her family and home -- she's building a "healing garden" alongside a brook that runs by the house -- and let the battle proceed without her?

Because, Ruth said, there are countless other women (and men, for that matter) still locked in the same misery she endured. And because, after all she went through, she was finally blessed with a daughter who this week will watch from the back of the hearing room as her mother becomes a hero.

"I'm standing up for something," Ruth said. "And she's going to know her mom stood up for something."

Samantha, even at 10, is so musically gifted that she'll enroll this fall in a music theory course at the University of Maine. In between rooster crows Friday, the house filled with her rendition of a complicated French composition on the family piano.

Ruth and Butch, both beaming, stood silently in the kitchen and reveled in every flawless note.

"She is my future," Ruth finally whispered. "She is my hope."

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

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