" 'These medications that he was on, they build up in your bloodstream to the point of toxicity,' his father said. 'And that's what we're assuming happened'."
Military men are silent victims of sexual assault
By Bill Sizemore
© October 4, 2009
For years after the parachute accident that ended his Army service, Cody Openshaw spiraled downward.
He entered college but couldn't keep up with his studies. He had trouble holding a job. He drank too much. He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep, he had nightmares. He got married and divorced in less than a year. He had flashbacks. He isolated himself from his friends and drank more.
"His anxiety level was out of this world," his father said. "This was a young man who got straight A's in high school, and now he couldn't function."
Openshaw had the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, even though he had never been in combat. His parents attributed the trauma to the accident and the heavy medications he was taking for the continuing pain.
But there was more.
Finally, he broke down and told his father.
A few months after his accident, as he was awaiting his medical discharge from the Army, he had been sexually assaulted.
The attack left him physically injured and emotionally shattered. Inhibited by shame, embarrassment, sexual confusion and fear, it took him five years to come forward with the full story.
What truly sets this story apart, however, is not the details of the case, horrific as they are, but the gender of the victim.
There is a widespread presumption that most victims of sexual assault in the military services are women. That presumption, however, is false.
In a 2006 survey of active-duty troops, 6.8 percent of women and 1.8 percent of men said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the previous 12 months. Since there are far more men than women in the services, that translates into roughly 22,000 men and 14,000 women.
Among women, the number of victims who report their assaults is small. Among men, it is infinitesimal. Last year the services received 2,530 reports of sexual assault involving female victims – and 220 involving male victims.
One of them was Pfc. Cody Openshaw.
Now his family has made the difficult decision to go public with his story in the hope that it will prompt the military services to confront the reality of male sexual assault.
As Openshaw's father put it in an interview, "Now that they know, what are they going to do about it."
Openshaw grew up in a large Mormon family in Utah, the fifth of nine children. He was a mild-tempered child, an Eagle Scout who dreamed of becoming a brain surgeon.
He was an athlete, a tireless hockey player and a lover of the outdoors. He was prone to take off on a moment's notice to go hiking or camping – sometimes with a friend, often just him and his tent – among Utah's rugged canyons and brown scrub-covered mountains.
He had a sensitive side, too: He was a published poet.
He looked big and menacing but he was really a teddy bear, one of his brothers said.
When he walked into a room, a sister said, everyone would light up.
He also had a mischievous streak. Once after joining the Army in 2001, he went home on leave unannounced for his mother's birthday. He had himself wrapped up in a big cardboard box and delivered to the front porch. When his mother opened the box, he popped out.
Openshaw volunteered for the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he excelled as a paralegal and paratrooper. But his military career came to an untimely end shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
As his unit was training to invade Afghanistan, a parachute malfunction sent Openshaw plummeting 60 feet to the ground, causing severe stress fractures in his spine and both legs.
For months as he awaited his medical discharge, he was plagued by chronic pain. The medications prescribed by the Army doctors only helped so much, and alcohol became a kind of self-medication.
After a night on the town with a fellow soldier, his father learned later, Openshaw returned to the barracks and encountered a solicitous platoon sergeant.
His legs were hurting, and the sergeant said, "Let me rub your legs." Then the contact became violently sexual. Openshaw – drunk, disabled and outranked – was in no position to resist.
The next day the sergeant told him, "Just remember, accidents happen. They can happen to you and to your family. You know, people show up missing."
The story came out in tortured bits and pieces.
Openshaw confided in his older sister the next day in an agonized phone call but swore her to secrecy. He took his assailant's warning as a death threat.
"He was worried about me and the rest of the family," his sister said. "He said 'We need to keep it quiet.' "
Because of the reported threat to Openshaw's family, their names and locations have been omitted from this story.
He finally told his therapist at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City, who referred him to a VA sexual assault treatment center in Bay Pines, Fla. As part of his therapy there, Openshaw shared more of the traumatic episode in a letter to his father.
"He wanted to get better," his brother said. " He decided, 'I'm going to beat this. I'm tired of five years of depression. I want to feel alive again.' "
A longtime friend thinks guilt was a factor in Openshaw's reluctance to come forward with his story.
"I think he blamed himself because he was drinking," the friend said. "When the assault happened, he said he remembered laying there and he was so drunk that he couldn't do anything about it.
"It really affected him. He struggled even with asking a girl out on a date. He felt unworthy."
Trauma from sexual assault has become so commonplace in the military that it now has its own designation: MST, for military sexual trauma.
The VA was first authorized to provide sexual assault outreach and counseling to female veterans after a series of congressional hearings in 1992. As the realization dawned that this was not just a women's issue, those services were extended to male veterans.
According to a 2007 study by a team of VA researchers, a nationwide screening of veterans seeking VA services turned up more than 60,000 with sexual trauma. More than half of those – nearly 32,000 – were men.
Those numbers almost certainly understate the problem, the researchers wrote, concluding that the population of sexually traumatized men and women under the treatment of the VA is "alarmingly large."
Sexual trauma, the researchers found, poses a risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder "as high as or higher than combat exposure."
Among active-duty personnel, the Defense Department has embarked on what it says is an unprecedented effort to wipe out sexual assault in the ranks.
Key to that effort, the department says, is encouraging a climate in which victims feel free to report the crime without fear of retribution, stigma or harm to their careers.
In 2005, Congress authorized the creation of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services to examine how well the services are carrying out that mission. Its final report is being prepared now.
The task force fanned out across the world, hearing stories from dozens of service members who had been victimized by sexual predators. In April, at a public meeting in Norfolk, the group saw a slide presentation prepared by Cody Openshaw's father.
As the story unfolded, the hotel conference room fell silent. By the end, the staffer who presented it – a crusty retired general – was close to tears.
It was a rare event: Of 58 stories collected by the task force over a year of meetings and interviews, only seven involved male victims.
If the crime is seldom reported, it follows that it is seldom prosecuted. According to Army court-martial records, 65 sexual assault cases involving male victims have been prosecuted worldwide in the past five years. There were almost 10 times that many cases, 621, involving female victims.
The Air Force, Navy and Marines were unable to provide a breakdown of sexual assault cases by gender.
Jim Hopper, a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School who has studied male sexual abuse, said victims' reluctance to come forward is rooted in biology and gender socialization.
Males are biologically wired to be more emotionally reactive and expressive than females, Hopper said, but they are socialized to suppress their emotions.
"Boys are not supposed to be vulnerable, sad, helpless, ashamed, afraid, submissive – anything like that is totally taboo for boys," he said. "The messages come from everywhere. Right from the start, a fundamental aspect of their being is labeled as not OK."
Military training reinforces that socialization, Hopper said. "It conditions men to accept physical wounds, death and killing while leaving them unprepared for emotional wounds that assault their male identity.
"When they get assaulted, they're unprepared to deal with their vulnerable emotions. They resist seeking help. They believe that their hard-earned soldier-based masculinity has been shattered. They're going to feel betrayed, alienated, isolated, unworthy. They feel like they're a fake, a fraud, not a real man," Hopper said.
Openshaw's father, a marriage and family therapist, fears that the plight of male victims will continue to get short shrift.
"The military should take a more proactive role in understanding male sexual assault," he said. "They need to set up some way that these young men can get some services without feeling so humiliated. They don 't have to be so macho."
When Openshaw returned home from treatment in Florida in April 2008, his family and friends were buoyed by hope that he had turned a corner.
The two months of treatment "did a world of good," one friend said.
"He texted me and said, 'I've learned so many things. I've learned that bad things can happen to good people, and it's not their fault.' "
"He was so excited to come home," a sister said. "He was planning a big party. He wanted everybody to see he was better."
He was still heavily medicated, however – with narcotics for the lingering pain from his parachute accident and antidepressants for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
His first night at home, he went to bed and never woke up.
The cause of death was respiratory arrest from prescription drug toxicity. He was 25.
"These medications that he was on, they build up in your bloodstream to the point of toxicity," his father said. "And that's what we're assuming happened."
He does not think his son committed suicide.
"I have nine children, including Cody, and 15 grandchildren," he said. "Cody had made arrangements for them all to come over the next day. There was absolutely nothing in his affect or demeanor that would suggest that he would kill himself."
He is buried beside a pine tree on a flat, grassy hilltop in the shadow of his beloved mountains. His gravestone is adorned by U.S. flags, flowers and cartoon bird figures recalling his whimsical streak.
A year later, his death remains an open wound for the family. One younger brother is "very angry with God," his father said. He refuses to visit the grave.
Openshaw's young nieces and nephews still talk about him and ask when he's coming over to play.
"Kids loved him to pieces," his mother said. "He affected everybody he met."
She, like her husband, hopes her son's story will prompt the military services to take male sexual assault more seriously: "Something needs to be done so other service members and their families don't have to go through this."
The Army Criminal Investigation Command investigated the case, but with the victim dead and no eyewitnesses, the initial conclusion was that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
The suspect has been questioned but remains on active duty. He has been recently deployed in Iraq.
If the case is not prosecuted, the suspect may be subject to administrative sanctions.
Louis Iasiello, a retired rear admiral and chief of Navy chaplains who co-chairs the sexual assault task force, said that when commanding officers take the crime seriously, victims – whether male or female – are more likely to come forward.
"The command really does set the tone," he said. "In places where the command set a positive tone and also set a zero tolerance toward this crime, it was very obvious that people felt more comfortable coming forward and reporting an incident and getting the help they needed to begin the healing process."
In the Openshaw case, that clearly didn't happen, said Thomas Cuthbert, the task force staffer who presented the story in Norfolk.
At the time of his attack, Openshaw was in a holding unit at Fort Bragg for soldiers awaiting medical discharge.
"Instead of protecting him while he was being treated, he was left alone and subject to a predator," said Cuthbert, a retired brigadier general.
"The kid was not in a position where he was fully capable of defending himself, and he got hurt by some hoodlum wearing a uniform. Any Army officer worth his salt, looking at those facts, would get angry.
"He needed help, and instead he received abuse of the worst kind. Leadership can't prevent all crime. But when someone in authority takes advantage of a subordinate, leadership should be held accountable."
If the services are serious about coming to grips with male sexual assault, Cuthbert said, there is still much work to be done.
If it can happen to a talented, promising soldier in the 82nd Airborne, he said, plenty of others who aren't as independent or as capable of taking care of themselves also are at risk.
"Nobody in uniform is very happy talking about this issue. They don't want to publicly admit it's there, although we all know it's there."
Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, firstname.lastname@example.org