The Message That Saved A Military Sexual Assault Survivor's Life

When Jeremiah Arbogast entered the home of his former boss, a Marine staff sergeant, he was wearing a body wire hooked up by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which was listening from a nearby car.

"I need to know what happened," Arbogast told the staff sergeant in 2001. "I need to get help. I can't get help if I don't know what happened."

The man began to coolly list everything he had done to Arbogast, recounting his rape.

"I don't know what possessed him to just be like, 'I did this, this and this, and that's that,'" Arbogast said. "No remorse, no nothing." Arbogast got his rapist's full confession on tape, but the process severely traumatized him -- again.

The staff sergeant was convicted by court martial in 2002, given merely a "bad conduct" discharge from the Marines. But Arbogast's ordeal went on for seven more years of severe depression, nightmares and insomnia. He had trouble concentrating; his mind would wander back to the rape. He swung abruptly from rage to numbness. He got divorced. Then got remarried. He drank. Nothing worked.
jeremiah arbogast
Jeremiah Arbogast wearing his Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

In 2009, Arbogast aimed a gun "right dead in the chest, where my heart would be, where my pain was." He missed and became partially paralyzed.

His wife told him, "You've got a gift now. You've been given a new life in death and you've got to do something with it."

Men accounted for only about 12 percent of reported military sexual assault cases in fiscal year 2012. But more men than women are sexually assaulted each year in the military, given that men make up some 85 percent of service members, notes Michael Matthews, a close friend of Arbogast. Matthews' own experience as a veteran and victim of rape served as the catalyst for "Justice Denied," a documentary about male military sexual assault survivors.

Back in 1998, when Arbogast joined the Marines just after high school, no one was talking about these issues. He started as a motor transport operator, and later served as a lance corporal in a weapons training battalion. He was preparing to deploy to Okinawa, Japan -- until he was assaulted.

"I served honorably," Arbogast said. "The rape trumped it."

Arbogast was unconscious during his attack -- doctors believe he may have been drugged -- and he didn't report it for months. "I'm trying to explain this to base counselors, and it was just eating me alive," he said. "I could not believe what I was going through ... It spiraled my world out of control."

After he confronted his rapist and went through the court martial, he didn't want to go near a base, but every six months the military brought him back to check on his health. It took him five years until he could formally retire from the Marines on medical grounds.

Then he had to face his demons in civilian life. His daughter was just under a year old, but he couldn't connect with anyone. He tried to move forward, marrying his daughter's mother in 2004.

"As much as I love my daughter, I didn't have the relationship with her that I should have," he said. "I ruined a lot of relationships."

Arbogast and his wife divorced. He withdrew from the world, unable to trust others or himself. He went from being uninterested in sex to engaging with a "chronic," endless string of faceless female partners. "The myth is that men can't be raped, so when this trauma takes place, it plays with their mind so bad," he said of men who become victims of sexual assault.

jeremiah arbogast

When he met his current wife, Tiffany, he was sure his experiences would chase her away. But it all came tumbling out. "She looked at me and told me it didn't matter, she would love me regardless. As much as I wanted to believe her, I couldn't," he said.

His downward spiral continued. On Oct. 1, 2009, about four months after they were married, Tiffany took his handgun, planning to keep it in her car while she was at work.

"I thought I was poison to everybody I was around, or anything I had ever touched," Arbogast said. "I was dragging people down again, it was starting all over ... I decided that's when I was gonna end it, stop being a problem to everybody else."

That afternoon, he got his 9mm handgun out of Tiffany's car before she left for work. "I told her I wasn't gonna do anything," he said. Hours later, he was sitting on the ground beside the car, "trying to make reason of why my life was the way it was."

He raised the gun to his chest, but because he had been drinking, slumped at the last second. The bullet tore through his high abdomen and blasted out through his spine, damaging his spinal cord. He lost 60 percent of his blood, and woke up a week later in the hospital from a medically induced coma.

His depression only deepened over the coming months, until his wife told him that he had a gift. Arbogast now had the understanding to spread awareness and speak for three groups that often suffer in silence: military sexual assault survivors, suicide survivors and people with disabilities.

"Something clicked," said Arbogast, now 32. "I didn't want anybody else to go through it."

"People don't understand why it's a gift," he added, reflecting on his whole experience. "But many people die and never realize what they really had, what their purpose in life was. My life was spared to give me a purpose."

Not that his recovery has ever been easy. He says, simply, "You can't undo a gunshot wound."

Though grateful for his military health care and benefits, he has relied less and less on medical facilities. "When you're in a wheelchair, you get so tired of being poked and prodded," he said. "One day I just said, 'enough. I need to live my life.'"

jeremiah arbogast

He has become involved in Paralympic and adaptive sports and is a decorated athlete in cycling and swimming. He had never skied in his life before he became a paraplegic; now he loves it, terrorizing the slopes in a monoski, a bucket chair with a ski attached. Recently, he's been learning how to get around with braces.

Arbogast has just begun to talk about his experience to his daughter, Brianna, who's now 11. "I'll tell her, 'Daddy tried to kill himself because he didn't want to be here,' and she'll say, 'I want you here.'"

Brianna helps him move around their house, which is not accessible for wheelchairs. "I'll tell you what, it's extreme hell," he said. "I can't even get into the bathroom safely, my wife has to get me a roll stool and roll me. Just think of all the places in a house when you're in a wheelchair you can't get to."

jeremiah arbogast

He said it's difficult for military and sexual assault survivors, especially men, to speak out about the issue. "We don't talk about sexual assault because it's 'complex,'" he said. "Complex? You try and come live for just an hour in my complex life."

But he feels strongly that the discrimination and misunderstanding he faces are worth it if he can help to save someone's life.

"I've been through life and death," he said. "There is gonna come a time in your life when you have to say enough is enough. You're letting that perpetrator who assaulted you rent your life for free. You're becoming a slave to what they've done to you."

Others may see his experience as a reason to want to give up. But he says it's the reason to keep living. "It's all the tragedy and the triumph between where I was and where I am today."

Several organizations have been trying to help the Arbogast family raise money to adapt their home, but so far, the funds have fallen short. Click here for more about the project and to donate.

This article is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. To see all the articles, blog posts, audio and video, click here.

For a review of warning signs someone may be at risk of suicide, click here. For a list of resources to get free and confidential help, click here. If you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans at 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.



Jeremiah Arbogast, 'Tragedy And Triumph'