About Susan Avila-Smith
Founder and Director of VetWow, Ms. Susan Avila-Smith is a sought-after media guest who has spoken to international audiences about the challenges faced by survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) – sexual harassment, assault and rape while serving on active duty. From VAMC health care to the VARO benefits system, she has discussed both their benefits and failures from the perspective of MST victims. Currently, she trains other advocates to help with this work. And realizing that American service personnel’s needs were too often being ignored by the military and the government, she formed VetWow; the leading grassroots non-partisan organization, which addresses the needs of American service members and veterans.
“I had attended a Homeless Veterans meeting in October 1987 where I met Makeda Nandi, a Social Worker from King County Veterans Program, who encouraged me to further pursue my interest in helping women veterans. Once I had helped the first person, the word spread – and my volunteer ‘career’ began.”
Ms. Avila-Smith has spoken about gender issues and sexuality in the military to many different audiences. She has been featured in newspaper and magazine articles, in video on the web, and in film documentaries. She has leadership experience; and brings a strong sense of fairness, drive, and justice to the active duty and veterans community. She personally supports and guides her fellow veterans; providing them with resources for medical services, help with VA claims, and psychological counseling; as well as recommending policy change to officials. She continues to educate the public about MST.
“My passion for helping active duty military personnel and veterans with Military Sexual Trauma, and a few with other issues, has given me a new focus. I try to be the voice that survivors have lost when I speak to the media about MST. My primary concern for any veteran I work with is that they feel safe.”
“I work with the media to educate the public about MST. I do so in the hope that attention will bring improved help to the increasing numbers of Active Duty Personnel and Veterans who have been traumatized. In concert with congressional leaders and their staffs, I work to get real support for active duty soldiers and sailors at military bases both here and abroad.”
“I am a veteran, a survivor of Domestic Violence (DV) and MST. I did what was right – within the restrictions of an illegal order of silence from my command. But I found I was in the biggest battle of my life. There was no support for me. I felt powerless. I realized I would have to take on the Army while in the Army, where the Army had all the power and made all the rules. I reported the assaults and provided evidence, but was thwarted continuously for seventeen months by my Command. Finding I had this experience in common with other women veterans also, beside the encouragement of Makeda Nandi, led me to the idea of creating VetWow. ”
VetWow serves all survivors of MST; it provides direct peer counseling to active duty women and men who have experienced this trauma. It connects veterans with therapists and Veterans Service Officers who can help process their VA claims. VetWow advocates with members of Congress for changes in the armed forces that will prevent MST, and for improvements in VA systems to help victims. VetWow also provides services to veterans for MST-related conditions.
She has participated as an active member of the veterans community since 1995, specializing in development of VA benefit claims for victims of MST.
Born in San Jose, California, Ms. Avila-Smith received her Bachelor of Science from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. She served four years in the United States Army as a Chinese Linguist in the field of Military Intelligence. Susan was Honorably Discharged . She speaks English, Chinese, Italian, French, Spanish and Swahili. She earned badges for weapons qualifications of Grenades and M-16 rifles as well as National Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal and Army Commendation Medal.
“I was sent to Fort Jackson, SC, for Basic Training as a Specialist (E-4) at the age of 34. Having had college training, world travel, and work experience started me off with rank – an issue for every Drill Sergeant I encountered.”
In 1992, Ms. Avila-Smith experienced sexual assault by her medical team after sinus surgery at Darnell Hospital Ft. Hood, Texas. Later in her tour of duty she was subjected by her violent ex-husband to repeated physical and sexual assaults, resulting in the murder of her unborn child; and then to more than two years of stalking. This occurred with her Command’s knowledge. Her Command protected her ex-husband at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, by telling civilian police he was no longer stationed there. Felony kidnapping and assault charges failed in court, leading to his conviction for misdemeanor charges that were not enforced by the judge.
“I was betrayed by my Chain of Command. I was never put on the promotion list. My Personnel File was ‘misplaced.’ I filed an Inspector General’s (IG) complaint. The IG would not accept it. I was followed by U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) who were trying to establish a fictitious case of ‘Adultery’ and who on multiple occasions attempted to charge me. During this time, I followed the military rules, regulations and procedures assiduously, in order to avoid other false charges. I learned my integrity was greater than that of my entire Chain of Command.”
“My experiences were horrific and long term. Fifteen years out of the Army, I still continue to have problems related to PTSD. Telling my story and the similar stories of other veterans help those with MST to understand the issue. The regulations that allow people to fall through the cracks at DoD and VA need to be fixed. I am proud of the fact that I continue to help bring some measure of justice to other survivors, and I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by VetWow.”
” Since the establishment of VetWow in 1996, I have assisted more than 2,200 men and women victims of MST with their VA claims for benefits as well as helped attend to the needs of their families. VetWow is the nation’s oldest support system for survivors of MST. It provides 17 Yahoo groups for veterans with MST, showing by example how veterans can get the care they are due.
“Service members ought to feel safe with their peers while deployed overseas, as well as in the country they defend.”
Each year hundreds of servicemen and women are sexually assaulted by their colleagues and supervisors while serving. Far too many face constant humiliation, re-victimization, and lose their jobs because they report assaults, as required by the regulations. The perpetrators far too often continue their careers; and, more likely than not, any charges for rape or assault “disappear,” (are expunged) from the record. The term “Command Rape,” meaning the rape by a commander of a subordinate, has been added to MST vocabulary recently, because it has become so common.
“I do not work for anyone, and purposely keep myself free of rules and regulations that could hamper my ability to get positive results for veterans. My sole objective is to affect changes that will benefit veterans.”
Veterans of all ages and eras have had difficult or unproductive experiences with VA hospitals, Vet Centers and the VA claims system. In too many cases those experiences led them to give up on the VA, and in some cases their lives. Mistreatment and neglect, or just incorrect information encountered at VA facilities is often reason enough for traumatized veterans to fall through the cracks. The inability to get help can result in further problems like eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness, and/or suicide. MST survivors who have already been mistreated by their military Command may be re-traumatized by harassment or mistreatment at VA facilities. A Federal Mandate requires that VAMC employees be trained to provide victims of MST with specific information about VA Compensation for MST, unlike any other VA service connected disability claim. Yet, VA fails to train all employees, including those who work on claims. Failures like these contribute to the backlog in VA Claims, reported to be near one million.
“In fact, virtually all the veterans I have worked with have said that DoD and VA causes more stress than the sexual assault itself.”
Working with officials of the DoD; including the Pentagon as well as the Departments of the Army, Air Force and Navy; the White House; the Congress; the VA; and the Department of Homeland Security; Ms. Avila-Smith promotes justice, advocacy, health care, and safety for those with MST. Her clients range in age from young adults to the geriatric population, and include women, pregnant or with children – many with psychiatric disorders and/or substance dependence.
“Commanders at an O-3 level should not be in the position of Judge and Jury in a rape case. Over time, and with limited experience 0-3’s have changed Rape from a Military ‘Hanging Offense’ to that of a letter of reprimand with perhaps a small fine. It is extremely rare for perpetrators to be held accountable for their crimes; while survivors of MST have their lives, families, and careers destroyed forever.”
- Advocated for soldier raped then abandoned in Kuwait, obtained local care and transportation to return to the US to her family. Provided housing while handling International media relations to include featuring the story on Dateline NBC. Assisted soldier in obtaining an Honorable medical discharge from active duty and then 100% VA benefits.
- Educated and trained advocates in maneuvering the VA and Social Security Disability systems to obtain benefits for veterans. Developed materials to guide veterans from the application to receipt of benefits.
- Successfully exposed multiple sex offenders in three jobs where they had access to and abused women veterans, resulting in their replacement.
- Successfully mediated a Sexual Harassment claim for a Veterans Service Organization employee.
- Negotiated Active Duty emergency Administrative Discharges in all services for MST, with full benefits.
- Won difficult benefits claim cases that have lingered for decades within the VA on various denials and appeals. Able to understand CFR Title 38, legal and medical journals. Identify and correct mistakes made by VA health care providers, adjudicators and attorneys. Successfully obtained benefits for two MST clients who fought and waited for seventeen years, and another for fourteen.
- Provided financial planning opportunities to veterans who receive settlements of $100,000 or more.
- Successfully challenged and changed VAMC/VARO VISN policies and procedures by persistent education.
- Found PTSD Service Dogs, and funding to help disabled veterans.
- Through media, advocated for women victims of MST during the Air Force Academy rape scandal and victims of MST and DV at Fort Bragg.
- Fourteen years of managing more than 2,700 female and 30 male clients at various stages of recovery from MST. Fifteen years personal experience seeking care, support, and benefits within the VA system for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to MST and DV, to include all options. Represented claimants before the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Military Discharge Review Boards and Boards for the Correction of Military Records.
- Continuing my mission to link active duty service personnel and veterans with information on face book.
Teaching and Presentations
- Has conducted over twenty lectures, workshops, retreats and seminars on topics related to MST/PTSD and VA benefits law, including Veterans and Active Duty Medical Claims, violence and suicide assessment, available VA psychiatric treatments, competency in personal financial matters, Representative Payee issues, Social Security and QTC psychiatric disability evaluations, Service Dogs and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as sexual harassment.
- Academy Women Annual presentations include Understanding Gender Bias, and MST – Needs versus Reality.
- “I trained Laura Watterson for nearly a year. She testified before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Military Sexual Trauma. She and I worked on her statement, and she was selected from 2,000 applicants to testify. She had not left her bedroom for many months prior to this event.”
- Congressional Inquiries into Sexual Assault in the Military, Article 32 Hearings Ft. Hood and Ft. Lewis, Medical Boards, training for Civilian and Government Healthcare Providers and Veterans Service Officers. Congressional Women’s Caucus. Oregon and Washington Department of Veterans Affairs Active Duty and Women Veterans Conferences.
- Caseload includes men, women, transgendered and under age recruits abused by military recruiters and active duty personnel. Clients come from Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines and encompass a span of over 75 years of service. Represents clients worldwide, guiding MST victims, and their families to transition them to safety.
- “Few people who enlist in the armed forces realize the extent to which sexual trauma (sexual harassment, assault and rape) occurs in the military. Fewer people know that MST affects men as well as women.”
- Ms. Avila-Smith understands how MST can affect a service member’s life. She also understands that seeking help from the VA for MST/PTSD can re-traumatize the victims. VetWow can advise and guide veterans to heal and empower themselves with the personal decisions they make.
- Speaker, 2010-2011 International Programs, UW Comparative History of Ideas,
Clowes Center for the Study of Conflict and Dialogue
- Training – VA Benefits and Claims for Seattle Attorneys.
- Chain Camera Pictures – Documentary, Military Sexual Trauma.
- Panelist, California Psychological Association Convention, Alliant International University.
- Speaking Tour with “Female Faces of War” Documentary.
- National Geographic – Photo Essay on MST.
- Benefitingveterans.org – Podcasts, Video instruction with Jessica “Kris” Kenyon.
- Packparachute.org* – Advocate Training.
- National Center for PTSD Clinical Training Program.
- Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, Director WOMEN VETERANS HEALTH STRATEGIC HEALTH CARE GROUP
- Dr. Patricia Hayes, CHIEF CONSULTANT, WOMEN VETERANS HEALTH STRATEGIC HEALTH CARE GROUP
- Dr. Cynthia Padden-Stoddard, Psychiatry & Neurology
- Dr. Bridget Cantrell, Doctorate of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology
- Dr. Tom Schumacher, PTSD Program Director, Washington Department of Veterans Affairs
- Lourdes “Alfie” Alvarado-Ramos, Deputy Director Washington Department of Veterans Affairs
- Gloria Grace, National Center for PTSD (Retired)
- BG Pat Foote, (Retired)
- Denise Pritzl, LICSW (Retired)
- Joel Estey, Former Director of King Country Veterans Program
- Constance Burns, Director, National Association of American Veterans
VetWow provides separate group forums for male and female veterans to connect, share, support and heal with their brothers and sisters-in-arms who struggle with “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and MST”. Veterans from WWII to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom work together (and with their providers) to overcome the multitude of issues and struggles associated with MST.