Sam Samplonius was 17 and just starting out as an army reservist when she was sexually assaulted for the first time in her military career.
It was 1981 in B.C., after the end of a training course. A party was thrown at the home of Ms. Samplonius’s then-boyfriend, a military instructor. Ms. Samplonius said she was sleeping in a bedroom when a group of sergeants and master corporals – also her instructors – sexually assaulted her. She said her boyfriend dissuaded her from going to police, cautioning that it would finish her professionally.
When she was 18, she suffered another sexual assault, this time by an officer. Later, in 1989 during a posting in Winnipeg, a colleague working on the base disabled her car by tampering with the engine wires. After her shift, he offered her a lift to a military police office at the main gate. It was a brutal winter night, in an era before cellphones. She said the man drove her off the base and sexually assaulted her.
“You’ve buried them because you don’t want to deal with them,” Ms. Samplonius said of these assaults and others she endured throughout her military career.
In 2016, she began speaking to a therapist, a process that cracked open these decades of abuse, including frequent sexual harassment in the military workplace throughout the 1980s, years that chipped away at her self-worth.
“I recognized through therapy that I never really felt safe in the military,” said Ms. Samplonius, now 58. “There’s the outrage of being violated – but then there’s also this moral outrage: ‘I was supposed to trust this person with my life but I can’t even trust them not to touch my body.’”
Among regular force members, more than one in four women and one in 25 men have experienced sexual assault at least once since joining the Canadian Armed Forces, according to Statistics Canada. Some 600 reservists reported being sexually assaulted in a military workplace during the previous 12 months, according to 2018 data from the agency. The country’s military establishment has been shaken by a string of accusations of sexual misconduct, abuse and sexual assault against numerous high-ranking officials. In December, the federal government ordered a review of Canada’s military colleges, where sexual abuse remains prevalent – this after a May, 2022, report from retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour found the Canadian Armed Forces had failed to stamp out sexual misconduct.
To date, there have been few dedicated resources to help people suffering from sexual trauma incurred while serving in the military. Now, the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families has launched a free, online hub to support military and RCMP veterans who’ve lived through such abuses, while also helping their loved ones and educating health care practitioners who want to aid this population.
The institute is sharing detailed information on military sexual misconduct, the many reverberations of trauma, evidence-based therapy models and grounding techniques, peer support, compensation and benefits, as well as links to other resources such as the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, a federal government resource that supports current and former Canadian Armed Forces members, among others.
Atlas’s tools, launched at the end of September, 2022, are meant to help veterans disclose, cope and eventually recover. Though the material is geared toward vets, their family and friends, the information is free and accessible online for anyone, including active serving members of the armed forces and RCMP.
“Many veterans have gone through experiences that civilians just have no sense of. … This is intended to help them understand that healing from trauma is possible,” said MaryAnn Notarianni, deputy chief executive of the institute, which was originally established through the Minister of Veterans Affairs as the Centre of Excellence on PTSD and Related Mental Health Conditions.
For health care providers, there is tailored guidance on properly screening for military sexual trauma in clinical practice – from understanding military culture in order to build trust with patients, to validating veterans’ experiences. The online fact sheets and videos are designed for family doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, among others.
Military sexual misconduct includes verbal abuse, unwanted advances, sexual harassment and sexual violence. It takes place within the military, on or off duty, on or off military bases, at military functions or activities. It can involve superiors, subordinates or staff at an equal rank.
Military sexual trauma refers to the physical, psychological and social effects of such abuses. Physical problems can include chronic pain and sleeping difficulties. There can be “panic, sadness, anger, shame, guilt, helplessness, numbness, fear,” as well as anxiety, depression and substance-use disorders, Ms. Notarianni said. Trauma can breed mistrust and strain relationships with relatives, friends and colleagues.
There are complex reasons why active serving members and veterans may avoid disclosing or seeking care. Asking for help can be countercultural for those who have had notions of resilience and self-sufficiency reinforced throughout military life. Victims can face professional consequences, feeling forced to choose between ending a military career or continued contact with a perpetrator. Some face doubt, judgment and retaliation from authority figures or other recruits taking the side of a perpetrator.
“Many members of the military and RCMP live by the motto ‘Service before self.’ This can really affect people wanting to report,” said Nicole Elliott, a clinical psychologist who served on Atlas’s working group, developing resources for health care providers helping veterans.
“They may feel let down by a system that they dedicated their lives to and really believed in,” said Dr. Elliott, who works with St. Joseph’s Operational Stress Injury Clinic, which provides mental-health assessments and treatment for veterans and active serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP.
Dr. Elliott sees clients in person in London, Ont., and through virtual sessions, supporting them through recent and historical reports of sexual trauma.
She urged health care providers to educate themselves on the military ethos and create a safe environment for veterans who might be ready to disclose sexual violence. This includes listening nonjudgmentally to what patients are saying, outlining that these are common experiences and offering resources, without pressure, for when vets decide they’re ready “to move forward in their recovery,” Dr. Elliott said.
By 2016, Ms. Samplonius began coming to terms with the damage inflicted after years of sexual abuse while serving in the military. Working on a full-time contract as a reservist, she had access to medical coverage that included regular therapy sessions.
Her mood swings, anxiety, anger and tendency to isolate came into clearer focus. “You beat yourself up: ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I deal with this?’ You’re not realizing that your brain has that traumatic memory.”
In 2017, after Ms. Samplonius’s full-time contract was not renewed, her therapy coverage dried up. The following year, Veterans Affairs concluded she has post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from military sexual trauma and began covering her therapy and relevant prescription medications. Ms. Samplonius is now waiting for a medical release, while volunteering with Atlas, helping others cope.
The initiative is a vital support for veterans and families who may not be able to access or afford therapy, she said.
“It is important for us to understand how many lives can be helped and changed with resources and research on military sexual trauma.”