© October 4, 2009
For years after
the parachute accident that ended his Army service, Cody Openshaw spiraled
He entered college but couldn’t keep up with his studies. He
had trouble holding a job. He drank too much. He had trouble sleeping, and when
he did sleep, he had nightmares. He got married and divorced in less than a
year. He had flashbacks. He isolated himself from his friends and drank
“His anxiety level was out of this world,” his father said. “This
was a young man who got straight A’s in high school, and now he couldn’t
Openshaw had the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress
disorder, even though he had never been in combat. His parents attributed the
trauma to the accident and the heavy medications he was taking for the
But there was more.
Finally, he broke down and
told his father.
A few months after his accident, as he was awaiting his
medical discharge from the Army, he had been sexually assaulted.
attack left him physically injured and emotionally shattered. Inhibited by
shame, embarrassment, sexual confusion and fear, it took him five years to come
forward with the full story.
What truly sets this story apart, however,
is not the details of the case, horrific as they are, but the gender of the
There is a widespread presumption that most victims of sexual
assault in the military services are women. That presumption, however, is
In a 2006 survey of active-duty troops, 6.8 percent of women and
1.8 percent of men said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the
previous 12 months. Since there are far more men than women in the services,
that translates into roughly 22,000 men and 14,000 women.
the number of victims who report their assaults is small. Among men, it is
infinitesimal. Last year the services received 2,530 reports of sexual assault
involving female victims – and 220 involving male victims.
One of them
was Pfc. Cody Openshaw.
Now his family has made the difficult decision to
go public with his story in the hope that it will prompt the military services
to confront the reality of male sexual assault.
As Openshaw’s father put
it in an interview, “Now that they know, what are they going to do about it.”
Openshaw grew up in a large Mormon family in Utah, the fifth of
nine children. He was a mild-tempered child, an Eagle Scout who dreamed of
becoming a brain surgeon.
He was an athlete, a tireless hockey player and
a lover of the outdoors. He was prone to take off on a moment’s notice to go
hiking or camping – sometimes with a friend, often just him and his tent – among
Utah’s rugged canyons and brown scrub-covered mountains.
He had a
sensitive side, too: He was a published poet.
He looked big and menacing
but he was really a teddy bear, one of his brothers said.
When he walked
into a room, a sister said, everyone would light up.
He also had a
mischievous streak. Once after joining the Army in 2001, he went home on leave
unannounced for his mother’s birthday. He had himself wrapped up in a big
cardboard box and delivered to the front porch. When his mother opened the box,
he popped out.
Openshaw volunteered for the 82nd Airborne Division, based
at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he excelled as a paralegal and paratrooper. But his
military career came to an untimely end shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001,
As his unit was training to invade Afghanistan, a
parachute malfunction sent Openshaw plummeting 60 feet to the ground, causing
severe stress fractures in his spine and both legs.
For months as he
awaited his medical discharge, he was plagued by chronic pain. The medications
prescribed by the Army doctors only helped so much, and alcohol became a kind of
After a night on the town with a fellow soldier, his
father learned later, Openshaw returned to the barracks and encountered a
solicitous platoon sergeant.
His legs were hurting, and the sergeant
said, “Let me rub your legs.” Then the contact became violently sexual. Openshaw
– drunk, disabled and outranked – was in no position to resist.
day the sergeant told him, “Just remember, accidents happen. They can happen to
you and to your family. You know, people show up missing.”
The story came
out in tortured bits and pieces.
Openshaw confided in his older sister
the next day in an agonized phone call but swore her to secrecy. He took his
assailant’s warning as a death threat.
“He was worried about me and the
rest of the family,” his sister said. “He said ‘We need to keep it quiet.’
Because of the reported threat to Openshaw’s family, their names and
locations have been omitted from this story.
He finally told his
therapist at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City, who
referred him to a VA sexual assault treatment center in Bay Pines, Fla. As part
of his therapy there, Openshaw shared more of the traumatic episode in a letter
to his father.
“He wanted to get better,” his brother said. ” He decided,
‘I’m going to beat this. I’m tired of five years of depression. I want to feel
alive again.’ ”
A longtime friend thinks guilt was a factor in Openshaw’s
reluctance to come forward with his story.
“I think he blamed himself
because he was drinking,” the friend said. “When the assault happened, he said
he remembered laying there and he was so drunk that he couldn’t do anything
“It really affected him. He struggled even with asking a girl
out on a date. He felt unworthy.”
Trauma from sexual assault has
become so commonplace in the military that it now has its own designation: MST,
for military sexual trauma.
The VA was first authorized to provide sexual
assault outreach and counseling to female veterans after a series of
congressional hearings in 1992. As the realization dawned that this was not just
a women’s issue, those services were extended to male veterans.
to a 2007 study by a team of VA researchers, a nationwide screening of veterans
seeking VA services turned up more than 60,000 with sexual trauma. More than
half of those – nearly 32,000 – were men.
Those numbers almost certainly
understate the problem, the researchers wrote, concluding that the population of
sexually traumatized men and women under the treatment of the VA is “alarmingly
Sexual trauma, the researchers found, poses a risk for developing
post-traumatic stress disorder “as high as or higher than combat
Among active-duty personnel, the Defense Department has
embarked on what it says is an unprecedented effort to wipe out sexual assault
in the ranks.
Key to that effort, the department says, is encouraging a
climate in which victims feel free to report the crime without fear of
retribution, stigma or harm to their careers.
In 2005, Congress
authorized the creation of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the
Military Services to examine how well the services are carrying out that
mission. Its final report is being prepared now.
The task force fanned
out across the world, hearing stories from dozens of service members who had
been victimized by sexual predators. In April, at a public meeting in Norfolk,
the group saw a slide presentation prepared by Cody Openshaw’s father.
the story unfolded, the hotel conference room fell silent. By the end, the
staffer who presented it – a crusty retired general – was close to
It was a rare event: Of 58 stories collected by the task force
over a year of meetings and interviews, only seven involved male
If the crime is seldom reported, it follows that it is seldom
prosecuted. According to Army court-martial records, 65 sexual assault cases
involving male victims have been prosecuted worldwide in the past five years.
There were almost 10 times that many cases, 621, involving female
The Air Force, Navy and Marines were unable to provide a
breakdown of sexual assault cases by gender.
Jim Hopper, a psychology
instructor at Harvard Medical School who has studied male sexual abuse, said
victims’ reluctance to come forward is rooted in biology and gender
Males are biologically wired to be more emotionally
reactive and expressive than females, Hopper said, but they are socialized to
suppress their emotions.
“Boys are not supposed to be vulnerable, sad,
helpless, ashamed, afraid, submissive – anything like that is totally taboo for
boys,” he said. “The messages come from everywhere. Right from the start, a
fundamental aspect of their being is labeled as not OK.”
training reinforces that socialization, Hopper said. “It conditions men to
accept physical wounds, death and killing while leaving them unprepared for
emotional wounds that assault their male identity.
“When they get
assaulted, they’re unprepared to deal with their vulnerable emotions. They
resist seeking help. They believe that their hard-earned soldier-based
masculinity has been shattered. They’re going to feel betrayed, alienated,
isolated, unworthy. They feel like they’re a fake, a fraud, not a real man,”
Openshaw’s father, a marriage and family therapist, fears
that the plight of male victims will continue to get short shrift.
military should take a more proactive role in understanding male sexual
assault,” he said. “They need to set up some way that these young men can get
some services without feeling so humiliated. They don ‘t have to be so macho.”
When Openshaw returned home from treatment in Florida in April
2008, his family and friends were buoyed by hope that he had turned a
The two months of treatment “did a world of good,” one friend
“He texted me and said, ‘I’ve learned so many things. I’ve learned
that bad things can happen to good people, and it’s not their fault.’
“He was so excited to come home,” a sister said. “He was planning a big
party. He wanted everybody to see he was better.”
He was still heavily
medicated, however – with narcotics for the lingering pain from his parachute
accident and antidepressants for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
first night at home, he went to bed and never woke up.
The cause of death
was respiratory arrest from prescription drug toxicity. He was 25.
medications that he was on, they build up in your bloodstream to the point of
toxicity,” his father said. “And that’s what we’re assuming happened.”
does not think his son committed suicide.
“I have nine children,
including Cody, and 15 grandchildren,” he said. “Cody had made arrangements for
them all to come over the next day. There was absolutely nothing in his affect
or demeanor that would suggest that he would kill himself.”
He is buried
beside a pine tree on a flat, grassy hilltop in the shadow of his beloved
mountains. His gravestone is adorned by U.S. flags, flowers and cartoon bird
figures recalling his whimsical streak.
A year later, his death remains
an open wound for the family. One younger brother is “very angry with God,” his
father said. He refuses to visit the grave.
Openshaw’s young nieces and
nephews still talk about him and ask when he’s coming over to play.
loved him to pieces,” his mother said. “He affected everybody he
She, like her husband, hopes her son’s story will prompt the
military services to take male sexual assault more seriously: “Something needs
to be done so other service members and their families don’t have to go through
The Army Criminal Investigation Command investigated the case, but
with the victim dead and no eyewitnesses, the initial conclusion was that there
was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
The suspect has been questioned
but remains on active duty. He has been recently deployed in Iraq.
case is not prosecuted, the suspect may be subject to administrative
Louis Iasiello, a retired rear admiral and chief of Navy
chaplains who co-chairs the sexual assault task force, said that when commanding
officers take the crime seriously, victims – whether male or female – are more
likely to come forward.
“The command really does set the tone,” he said.
“In places where the command set a positive tone and also set a zero tolerance
toward this crime, it was very obvious that people felt more comfortable coming
forward and reporting an incident and getting the help they needed to begin the
In the Openshaw case, that clearly didn’t happen, said
Thomas Cuthbert, the task force staffer who presented the story in
At the time of his attack, Openshaw was in a holding unit at
Fort Bragg for soldiers awaiting medical discharge.
protecting him while he was being treated, he was left alone and subject to a
predator,” said Cuthbert, a retired brigadier general.
“The kid was not
in a position where he was fully capable of defending himself, and he got hurt
by some hoodlum wearing a uniform. Any Army officer worth his salt, looking at
those facts, would get angry.
“He needed help, and instead he received
abuse of the worst kind. Leadership can’t prevent all crime. But when someone in
authority takes advantage of a subordinate, leadership should be held
If the services are serious about coming to grips with male
sexual assault, Cuthbert said, there is still much work to be done.
can happen to a talented, promising soldier in the 82nd Airborne, he said,
plenty of others who aren’t as independent or as capable of taking care of
themselves also are at risk.
“Nobody in uniform is very happy talking
about this issue. They don’t want to publicly admit it’s there, although we all
know it’s there.”
Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276,