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Clothesline Project in Buffalo raises awareness of military sexual trauma

The T-shirts tell a story of sexual abuse, pain and, for some, recovery.

“Reclaim life. Dare to dream again,” read the message on one.

“No one knows the pain or the cost,” read another in a Clothesline Project display Wednesday in Buffalo VA Medical Center.

The project, modeled after the AIDS memorial quilt, began in 1990 in Cape Cod, Mass., to address violence against women, with women hand-decorating shirts to express their emotions.

Today, hundreds of organizations across the country participate in the Clothesline Project every year to raise awareness of sexual assault and abuse of both women and men.

The issue is particularly acute in the military.

Complaints of sexual assault in the armed forces increased 50 percent in 2013 to more than 5,000 compared with 2012, according to preliminary results of a survey released late last year by the Department of Defense. The survey also found fewer than 20 percent of the incidents are reported.

The numbers were released shortly after President Obama ordered military leaders to review the problem and at a time when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sought significant changes in the way the military prosecutes sexual crimes.

The Senate earlier this year rejected a bill pushed by Gillibrand to remove the prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command.

The approximately 70 T-shirts hanging in a room at the medical center focused on the personal rather than the political.

“The shirts are a means of breaking the silence that often accompanies sexual assault, and of expressing the pain and suffering, as well as the hope of victims,” said Rebecca Welch, the VA Western New York military sexual trauma coordinator.

“People find it is powerful and meaningful to share their experiences and struggles with others,” she said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs uses the term military sexual trauma to refer to experiences of sexual assault or harassment. The agency estimates that about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men in the military become victims of sexual trauma.

Welch said one of the goals of the project is to alert veterans about the availability of treatment.

Victims of assault or abuse can experience such problems as sleeplessness, difficulty experiencing emotions, alcoholism and drug use, failed relationships and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The shirts hanging on the clothesline, each by a victim of violence, offered compelling insights into the terror of sexual assault and the possibility of overcoming the experience.

Among the messages:

“No means no.”

“Love. Hate. Sex. Pain,” accompanied by a drawing of a noose around the neck of the shirt.

“Finally my voice breaks open the doors of pain and finds the willing ear of a witness.”

“I was lost. But now am found.”

For Rosalie Cooper, who said she is still dealing with the aftershocks of an assault by her late husband in the 1980s, the act of writing her thoughts on a shirt was a comfortable way to express the uncomfortable.

“It releases some inner strength,” said the Amherst resident, who served in the Navy from 1981 to 1986 and in the active Reserve from 1987 to 1994.

Cooper said her superiors at the time downplayed the incident as a domestic issue and did nothing about it.

The message on her shirt, “Men and women struggle together,” reflected her view that the military needs to do more to investigate sexual abuse, regardless of whether the victims are male or female, or who was the perpetrator.

“It was only in 2001, when I got treatment, that someone believed that something happened to me,” she said. “Talking about it helped. You can’t let the bad guys win.”