- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Veterans’ Administration at Fort Harrison plans to re-start a support group for women veterans who were raped or sexually assaulted, spurred by two years of lobbying by an advocate who said changing roles in the military increases the program’s need.

The Military Sexual Trauma Courage Group will begin its first 12-week course on Jan. 26 at Fort Harrison outside Helena, VA spokesman Shawn Garcia said Thursday.

“The decision was simple: There’s a need,” Garcia said. “We have a significant population of women veterans in general, and there is a need for military sexual trauma support groups.”

The group will help victims - generally women who were raped or assaulted while in military service - work through issues of anger, trust, self-esteem and relationship problems.

Carole Kiley, an Army Veteran who served at Fort Riley, Kansas, and in Germany from 1977-1981 as a mechanic, has been pressuring the VA to re-start the program since 2013. She has spoken about it at multiple VA town halls, has met with VA managers and even started her own group when she felt she wasn’t making any headway trying to bring it back within the system.

“I’m just stunned that it took two years to happen, but I’m erasing that and saying thank God the VA finally listened,” Kiley said.

The need for such groups will be even greater now that the military is opening all jobs to women, including combat-related roles, she said.

“Is see this as an opportunity for women, but also an opportunity for the increase of military sexual trauma,” Kiley said.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that any man or woman who meets the standards for high-risk military post should be able to serve, opening 220,000 jobs that include special operations forces.

Garcia said it is unclear how many women will participate in the program. Kiley said she expects good participation through the outreach efforts of VA behavioral health specialists and physician referrals.

Sexual assault can be shameful, embarrassing and hurtful, leaving women veterans to believe they’re alone and stuck in their thinking, Kiley said. Having the safety of an all-women group should encourage victims to become involved, she said.

“We need to be taken care of the way our brothers in arms are taken care of by the VA,” she said.

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