First Lt. Rebecca Cornell du Houx stands in front of the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope in Augusta. Credit: Courtesy of Ramona du Houx

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

Two members of the Maine Army National Guard are starting a support group for female veterans who have endured sexual assault and harassment.

The group’s first meeting will take place at 6 p.m. on Dec. 11 at the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope in Augusta, a nonprofit providing transitional housing to female veterans and run by First Lt. Rebecca Cornell du Houx.

She and another soldier, Sgt. Aleigh Suffern, decided to form the support group in the wake of a recent Bangor Daily News investigation into a predatory culture inside the Maine Army National Guard that soldiers say is permissive of sexual misconduct, retaliates against women who come forward, and goes easy on perpetrators.

“We strongly encourage and welcome any woman to take the leap of faith and come and share their story, enjoy a meal, strategize how to support future generations, discuss failures in the system, offer or seek resources, or simply listen quietly while sharing the company of their sisters through laughter and tears,” said Cornell du Houx, who also works in the mental health field as a licensed clinical social worker.

The problem of sexual assault in the military has been well established for years and disproprtionately affects women. The BDN investigation found a recent uptick of substantiated sexual assault cases in the Maine Army National Guard, but most go unreported due to soldiers’ fear of repercussions for speaking up.

Meanwhile, the psychological toll of sexual trauma can devastate survivors. One study found that female soldiers die by suicide at twice the rate of their male counterparts. Soldiers who spoke to the BDN said they don’t feel the guard has done enough to support them or hold perpetrators accountable.

“I hope we can reach other women who are out there, who read the story and feel empowered to join our group and support each other,” Cornell du Houx said.

In addition to providing a confidential space of support, the group will also serve as a starting point for women looking for local resources to address sexual trauma or report a sexual assault.

For Suffern, it took years to finally tell people that she had been sexually assaulted and needed help because the experience can be so isolating, she said.

“If there’s a need the guard isn’t filling, how can we, as a group, collectively support each other to match the correct fit for care?” she said. “People need to feel like they have allies and like they’re not alone.”

Maine National Guard officials have repeatedly said they do everything possible to root out sexual assault and support survivors, but, unlike in other states, leaders haven’t said if they will take any specific actions in response to the BDN’s reporting.

On Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, who oversees the guard, wrote a OpEd in the BDN reiterating the guard’s sexual assault polices and pledging to “continue to aggressively seek action against those who fail to live up to our values.”

More information about how to attend the support group’s first meeting, either in person or virtually, can be found online.

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.