Photo Essay

  • Betty Kilbrigh of Austin, Texas joined the military in 1989. Specializing in military transport, she drove Jeeps, trucks, tanks, and heavy equipment transporters. She was deployed in a base on the Saudi Arabia - Iran border, where she was raped. “Sexual harassment is a constant practice,” she said, “if they didn’t respect us at the base, how could they respect us and protect us in the battlefield?”
  • Betty Stuart from Austin, Texas was deployed in Hawaii and Korea. She was blackmailed in several ways by her drill sergeant in his attempt to convince her to have sex with him. After she married a soldier, both her and husband were deployed to Korea. Over time her husband became violent and abused her. 
  • Jeanne Marie Carodeau of Austin, Texas, had abusive and alcoholic parents. She left home at the age of 15, and decided to pursue the military career at the age of 18. She later spent nine months at the San Antonio Air Force base boot camp. Straight from the recruitment, sexual harassment became a constant practice. Suffering from too many major “incidents,” as she calls them, Jeanne Marie was incarcerated in the psychiatric ward. These traumatic experiences in the military have indelibly affected Jeanne Marie’s life; she has had a hard time finding a job, keeping normal social relationships and carrying on a normal life. It took her twenty years to be diagnosed with PSTD.
  • Sandra Lee, who currently lives in Connecticut, was working in Civil Affairs in the Army Reserves when she deployed to Iraq in 2003, and it was there that a colleague attacked her in her room. After returning to the U.S. in 2004, she spent years struggling with the V.A. to get benefits and dealing with the aftermath of her assault.
  • Lisa Morgan Wallace of Austin, Texas, deployed in the Navy on a cruiser in the Persian Gulf close to the coast of Iraq. Between 2004 and 2005, Lisa was stationed in a ship with 600 men and two other women soldiers. During that period, Lisa was sexually assaulted many times, though her first assault had already happened in 2001 at the Naval Academy. All the three girls deployed on the ship developed serious panic disorders and severe stress following the trauma. One of the girls became suicidal. After a long period of incidents, all of them broke down and were put into interrogation, after which they were discharged.
  • Lee Le Teff suffers from short-term memory disorder. “When you have to depend on your rapist for your personal safety, your brain cuts off those pieces of the memory that make you suffer and put you in doubt, to protect yourself, to safeguard and guarantee your survival. It took me many years to remember what happened.”
  • Jaqueline Cutting of Brooklyn, New York. Deployed in Iraq for several months.
  • Regina Vasquez served in the Marine Corps as a Transportation Specialist. While training, she was drugged and raped by two Marines. The platoon sergeant of those two Marines supplied the ecstasy for them to use on Regina by putting it in her glass. After the incident, Regina tried to report it, but the same platoon sergeant threatened to retaliate. Regina later developed PTSD from the experience.
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"Every time I tried to tell the truth... I was shut down"

Updated

Last year, a Pentagon report estimated that there were approximately 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact in fiscal year 2012. Only a few thousand of those instances were reported, and only 302 cases ever made it to trial.

The issue has plagued all branches of the armed forces for decades, and while Congress has passed historic changes toward addressing the issue, senators like Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., want to dramatically alter the way sexual assault cases are handled.

The Senate on Wednesday came to a deal that would bring competing proposals from both senators up for a vote likely within the next two weeks, NBC News reports.

Gillibrand wants to see authority over crimes, like sexual assault removed from the military chain of command entirely. While a vote on her bill and another proposed by McCaskill was initially stalled by Republican obstructionism, survivors like those portrayed by photographers Gabriele Galimberti and Pietro Chelli must wait through several more procedural hurdles on Capitol Hill before they can see justice.

Galimberti and Chelli’s work would not have advanced this far without survivors willing to tell their stories and put a human face to the statistics. After readingThe Lonely Soldier - The Private Wars of Women Serving in Iraq, by Helen Benedict, photographers Gabriele Galimberti and Pietro Chelli sought to highlight “what these women went through, what they sacrificed of their lives. A sort of warning to the younger women who want to serve in the military and don’t really know what they might encounter.”

While Galimberti and Chelli encountered some resistance related to convincing veterans groups and women that they would treat their subjects with respect, once that trust had been established, they were struck by the womens’ candor and openness.

“All of the women knew that they were there to witness and speak out, so they had already taken that decision of coming out of the shadows,” Galimberti and Chelli told msnbc in an email. “For us it was more adapting to a different way of working, where the most important thing was listening to what these women wanted to say, rather than just photographing them. We did spend a lot of time interviewing and listening, and hopefully this shows in the portraits.”

Three years after taking the photos, the photographers are following the debate over reforms in the U.S. military. They are both optimistic that the reforms passed this year, such as criminalizing retaliation against those that report, will make a difference, but, they say, “we will only be able to see the real effects of these reforms in many years, and it is hard to understand how deeply recent legislation can penetrate the intricate psychological layers a military system is founded upon, like the unconditional respect of the chain of command, or the acceptance of hazing as a normal part of the life in the army.”

For Lisa Wallace, “The more I understand about MST (military sexual trauma), the more I understand how early it began in my career, and how much it interfered with the happenings of my life and career for years.” When she started at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1999 at 18, she says in an email, “that was the first place and time that I truly realized that I was a GIRL and that being female influenced how people treated me.” Reporting her assault didn’t feel like an option, Wallace said. “There was no clear way to report rape and find support – at least not about which I had been educated,” and despite the negative effect in had on her mentally and emotionally, she finished school and graduated near the top of her class.

Life in the Navy was no improvement for Wallace, who suffered harassment and another assault while deployed to the Arabian Gulf, but when she answered questions about what had happened to her, she was disciplined and discharged for having “an inappropriate relationship” with her assailant. “What is perhaps the worst,” Wallace said, “is that every time I tried to tell the truth about what was going on, I was shut down or punished. I was honest when asked about what happened between me and my final assailant, and that ended my career.”

While the trauma of being assaulted and disbelieved by her colleagues and superiors will never go away, Wallace believes now that speaking out is something she has to do. ”I’m not a big fan of telling my story,” she says, but even though it hurts, “it is important to me that other women know that they are not alone in what they have or are experiencing when dealing with MST, and that there is hope. I think I’m a pretty stable, happy person now, all things considered. I want other women to know that with hope, faith and lots of therapy, they can have a life worth living again. “

Sandra Lee was working in Civil Affairs in the Army Reserves when she deployed to Iraq in 2003, and it was there that a colleague attacked her in her room. After returning to the U.S. in 2004, she spent years struggling with the V.A. to get benefits and dealing with the aftermath of her assault. It took a move to the East Coast to pursue her dream of performing in the arts to really jumpstart Lee’s healing process. “For me, the theater and the theater community have been invaluable in terms of my healing and my recovery process,” Lee told msnbc. She is currently living in Connecticut and working on a master’s degree focused on integrated health and healing, to use what I used in my recovery – art, music, theater – to help other veterans.”

Lee has also spoken out about her experiences and about the need for reform at events organized by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who supports Sen. Gillibrand’s bill to remove prosecutions from the chain of command. When it comes to talking about her trauma and recovery, “What helps me to see that and see the hope is when I hear people say that it takes courage to speak and that it gives them hope…I’m not a big activist, it’s not something I’ve gone out and sought, but if ever someone asks me to speak on the topic, then I’m more than happy to do that.”

For more feature photography, go to www.msnbc.com/photography