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Rape culture is still alive at the Department of Veterans' Affairs

Rape jokes and shame still abound in the military

Survivors of rape should not have to hear rape jokes at medical facilities that treat rape survivors. But they do. What is the Department of Veterans’ Affairs doing to combat its rape culture?

I like to think of myself as a strong, courageous and resilient woman. After a very brutal rape in 2006 while serving in the United States Coast Guard, I founded the Military Rape Crisis Center. With my wonderful team, we advocated and helped thousands of military rape survivors. We lobbied for better protection for military rape survivors. I have traveled around the globe speaking about rape and worked to eliminate the rape epidemic. I shared my story with dozens of reporters throughout the years  —  including those from CNN, The New York Times and even Glamour magazine. With all that said, I am still a human being suffering with my own health concerns related to my rape. Just because my job is in anti-sexual violence advocacy does not mean that I can no longer have absolutely normal triggers and reactions related to my trauma. I do. And that is perfectly OK.

Earlier this month, I was at the Jade Opal clinic at the troubled Phoenix VA waiting for my appointment. If you are not familiar with the Jade Opal clinic, it is basically one large waiting room in the main VA hospital where the line often runs out the door. Once inside, veterans sit like sardines waiting for their appointments. As it often happens, veterans talk to other veterans to help pass the time. I got into an innocent conversation about cell phones when a patient made a comment relating his cell phone bill to "being raped." I put on my advocate hat and tried to explain to him why rape should not be used as an ordinary verb. In return, he aggressively called me names, resorted to mocking me and made jokes about rape. At some point my advocate hat fell off. I was triggered. I spent my entire appointment in tears barely able to answer even my doctor's basic questions.

Rape jokes are never OK. When you tell or laugh at a joke about rape, you are normalizing, glorifying and desensitizing the crime. Rape jokes tell a survivor that their nightmares, agony, depression, anxiety, insomnia and flashbacks are not legitimate. How can one have a nightmare about something that has been deemed a joke? For survivors of rape, hearing rape jokes tells them that they need to "get over it" and that their emotions and traumas are a laughing matter. As a result, survivors feel ashamed for what happened to them. It's no surprise that rape is the most underreported crime in our society. There is nothing inherently or biologically shameful about being a survivor of rape. The shame a survivor feels comes from society's views about rape, in which rape jokes play a contributing factor.

I worked with the Phoenix VA in the past on a professional level. I found them to be very professional toward me when I advocated for others. As soon as I felt safe, I dusted off my advocate hat and decided to do for myself what I have done every day for the past nine years. I picked up the phone, dialed the VA and advocated for a veteran — except this time the veteran was me. A rape survivor should not have to hear a rape joke while waiting for medical treatment for rape.

I recognize my dual relationship with the VA and did not want to overstep any professional or work boundaries, so I went the route that a "regular patient" would take, instead of calling those that I built a professional working relationship with over the years.

My first and obvious choice was to call the Patient Advocate. I left a voicemail. After not hearing back for a couple of days, I called back and asked to speak to the Director of the Patient Advocates. I left a voicemail. I told the operator (the only human that I was able to speak to the first week) my concerns and we tried numerous departments, all of which I had to leave voicemails for.

Almost a week later, the Patient Advocate returned my phone call. Instead of support and validation, she told me that she felt that I was overreacting and that there was nothing that can be done. The Patient Advocate then turned to Twitter to publicly post that what I reported "did not happen." Public Affairs automatically dismissed my claim, yet without skipping a beat swore they take all such allegations very seriously  —  WTF!? Institutional dismissal of anything associated with rape  —  including inappropriate comments or jokes about sexual violence is rape culture.

I do admit that I have a problem keeping off my advocate hat, especially when I start noticing a pattern of bad behavior that needs to be corrected. In the biggest WTF moment of the week, a woman named Dana (or was it Donna? She acted very sketchy when I asked for her name) from the Phoenix VA Director's office literally barked down at me after I told her why I called. Because I told her my concerns first and therefore she couldn't see me as anything other than a patient, she proceeded to tell me that I "could not possibly be the Executive Director of the Military Rape Crisis Center" and that she would report me for misrepresentation. She hung up on me before I could get another word in.

I advocate for veterans for a living and have not once been treated with such disrespect. When I leave a voicemail representing a client, my phone calls are returned almost immediately — or at least by the end of the business day. Most often my phone calls or my accompanying clients at meetings at their VA result in a quick resolution. Every single time my clients ask  — How did you do that? When I tried they gave me a hard time.

I already proved that I can successfully advocate for veterans, so why is the Phoenix VA making it close to impossible for me to advocate when the veteran is me?

When I visit the VA as a professional, I am treated with the utmost respect. When I come in as a patient, I am ignored and treated like a criminal. This is not OK. I should be treated the same regardless if I come in saying "I am Panayiota Bertzikis, Executive Director of the Military Rape Crisis Center, I am here for a meeting" or "I am Panayiota Bertzikis, I have an appointment at the Jade Opal clinic today."

Veterans shouldn't need me (or someone like me) to get results. The VA should do the right thing not only when a third party witness is involved, but always, even if the veteran is advocating alone. In the military's "just suck it up" culture, it takes tremendous courage for a veteran to pick up the phone or walk into a patient advocate office and say "This happened to me. It is not OK. Let's fix it." It is even more courageous for survivors of military sexual trauma to report anything because of the blatantly common "blame the victim" response that so many of us faced when reporting a sex crime. It does not benefit a single soul to make veterans jump through all these hoops.

It is ridiculous to make veterans wait a week to have their phone calls returned, when the VA already showed me when I advocated for others that they are capable of returning calls in a timely manner. Veterans should be able to pick up the phone and speak to a Patient Advocate and be treated with respect and dignity. They should have their issues resolved in a timely manner. It's uncalled for when veterans have their concerns dismissed and trauma compounded by the insensitive response from untrained and uninformed VA staff.

The Patient Advocate should be their advocate. Most importantly, veterans should not need an advocate to help deal with the Patient Advocate!

My case is still unresolved. My assistant half-jokingly suggested that she should join me at the VA to help advocate for me. I think I'll give it a few days for this issue to be resolved before I decide on what the next step should be.

In the meantime, I started this petition to tell the Phoenix VA that rape survivors should not have to hear rape jokes while waiting for treatment for rape.

Panayiota Bertzikis is an author, public speaker, and women’s rights activist who is one of the leaders fighting to end gender-based violence. She is the founder of the Military Rape Crisis Center and managing editor of the award-winning blog, mydutytospeak.com.

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