Veteran Bikes to End Epidemic of Military Sexual Assault

Lackland Assault Survivor Bikes in Honor of Private LaVena Johnson

On Sunday, Ret. USAF Staff Sgt. Colleen Bushnell began a summer-long bike ride. With four other military heroes, she left Aberdeen, Wash., and is pedaling 4,000 miles to the nation's capital. Colleen is riding to raise awareness for victims of military sexual assault.

The Department of Defense estimates that more than 19,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted in 2010, but that only 13.5 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported.

The 90-day bike ride, called the Long Road Home Project, will take the veterans through 12 states. The veterans are raising money to fund their journey and plan to donate additional funds to serve veterans with personal and financial needs. The project was started by Casey Miller, a civilian, as a way to help veterans with their transitions home. It's estimated that since 2001, more than 50,000 veterans have been wounded, while there are more than 270,000 veterans who may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than half a million veterans have experienced military sexual trauma while serving our country. And 40 percent of homeless female veterans are survivors of sexual violence.

Colleen, a mother of two and an Iraq war veteran, was raped at the now infamous Lackland Air Force Base by a superior officer in 2003 and assaulted the following year while on active duty.

Colleen is riding for those who can't. She's dedicating her ride to the memory of Army PFC LaVena Johnson, who was raped and murdered while serving in Iraq.

"Army PFC LaVena Johnson had been in the military all of six months when she died. Both of her parents were career Army civilians. They spoke to her one day, from Iraq, and two days later they got a knock on their door," said Ret. USAF Staff Sgt. Colleen Bushnell.

Today, Protect Our Defenders released LaVena's story, the eighth mini-documentary that Protect Our Defenders has produced about military sexual trauma.

Watch LaVena's story below.

We warn you -- the video is graphic.

Nineteen-year-old Johnson was found dead on a military base in Balad, Iraq, in July 2005. She was the first female solider from Missouri to die in Iraq or Afghanistan. The U.S. Army ruled Lavena's death a suicide, but an autopsy report and photographs revealed Johnson had a broken nose, black eye, loose teeth, burns from a corrosive chemical on her genitals, and a gunshot wound that seemed inconsistent with suicide.

"Dr. and Mrs. Johnson, along with their daughter, LaVena, proudly served their country. Those who died in the war zone under mysterious circumstances and those left behind deserve a clear explanation based on evidence of what happened to their loved one while serving in combat. I hope to bring attention to their service," Colleen said.

More than half a million veterans have experienced military sexual trauma and for decades the Pentagon has tried to cover up the epidemic -- rather than fixing the problem.

Over the past year Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced several half measures to address the crisis of military sexual trauma, like bumping the reporting of rape and sexual assault further up the chain of command. But, this does little to address the problem. Many survivors have made it abundantly clear that senior commanders are just as capable of covering up assaults and frequently do. Commanders are incentivized to sweep problems under the rug as their careers can be adversely affected if a rape or sexual assault happens under their watch. And the DOD reports, "39 percent of women report that the perpetrator was a military person of higher rank and 23 percent indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command."

With Colleen taking to the road this summer to share her and LaVena's story at bases and towns all over the country, we hope to build a movement to end the epidemic of military sexual assault and rape.

Veterans like Colleen -- who are speaking up for those who can't -- deserve our support.

Colleen is dedicating her ride to the memory of Army PFC LaVena Johnson, who was allegedly raped and murdered while serving in Iraq.

testPromoTitleReplace testPromoDekReplace Join HuffPost Today! No thanks.