TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.
— Shortly after he arrived at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in March
2012, Air Force security guard Trent Smith was at an off-base apartment
when, he says, a male sergeant touched him and pressed him to go into
the bedroom for sex.
"I said, 'No, I don't
want to spend the night,'" Smith recalled. But Smith, 20, says he felt
he had no choice. "I went along with it."
For Smith, the encounter — which he reported up the chain of command
three days later — began an emotional ordeal. As the months passed, his
doctors say, the trim, polite airman with an engaging smile suffered
bouts of anger, guilt and depression so severe that he contemplated
suicide several times.
More disturbing for a Pentagon
struggling to gain control of a seeming epidemic of charges concerning
rape and unwanted sexual advances in the ranks, Smith's attempts to get
help only worsened his troubles. After a lengthy investigation, the
military decided that no crime had occurred, and it later moved to
discharge Smith on medical grounds.
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The case highlights a little-recognized reality for the
male-dominated military. Although members of Congress have focused their
outrage on abuse of women in uniform, the Pentagon reported in May that
53% of the estimated 26,000 troops who were raped or forced into sex
last year were men.
Although women are proportionally more likely to be the victim of a
sexual assault — the Defense Department estimates that 6.1% of women and
1.2% of men are victims of sexual assaults — the fact that men so
vastly outnumber women in the military means that the problem affects
more men than women.
Only a fraction of those alleging rape or sexual assault file
complaints with military police or prosecutors, as a rule, so the
Pentagon's most recent estimates are based on a confidential survey of
service members. Smith was among those who did file an official report.
After a six-month criminal investigation, Brig. Gen. Charles K. Hyde,
then commander of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein, decided the sex
was consensual, according to case records. The sergeant was admonished
for an "unprofessional relationship" with a lower-ranking airman, the
lightest punishment possible.
The Times is not naming the sergeant because he was not charged. He
declined an interview request through a base spokesman at Ramstein. The
spokesman, Maj. Tony Wickman, said the sergeant was considered an
During the investigation, Smith revealed that he was bisexual. He
said other security guards mocked him for "being a snitch" and used an
anti-gay epithet, according to his Air Force medical records.
After Smith was transferred to Travis in October 2012, an Air Force
psychologist recommended his discharge from the service. She said a
personality disorder made his traumatic stress untreatable.
"His condition is so severe it is not conducive with continued
military service," the psychologist, Capt. Andrea Graves, and her
supervisors at the base mental health clinic wrote in a May memo. It
called him "depressive," "passive-aggressive" and "odd, peculiar,
paranoid and extremely guarded."
Many members of the military with post-traumatic stress disorder
are allowed to remain on active duty if their condition can be treated
with counseling or medication. Smith was different, his doctors said,
because the personality disorder they found meant his PTSD could not be
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Smith disputes the diagnosis, and two psychiatrists hired by his
lawyers say he does not have a personality disorder. He contends he is
being cast off by the Air Force despite exemplary fitness reports from
his superiors at the Travis chapel, where he had been assigned since
"I'm willing to do whatever I need to do to stay in the Air Force,
and they don't care," Smith, who is appealing the discharge order, said
in an interview. "The system works against you when you start having
His problems are rooted in another traumatic episode. Growing up in
Tigard, Ore., just outside Portland, he was sexually abused at age 12 by
a male teenager, he says.
But Smith got good grades in high school, played jazz trumpet and
made the basketball and track squads, according to documents supplied by
his lawyers. He enlisted in the Air Force after graduation in 2011.
He was sent to Ramstein in March 2012 and assigned to a police unit
that patrolled an Air Force apartment complex outside the base. That
June, the staff sergeant, who was Smith's "unit sponsor," a
noncommissioned officer responsible for easing recent arrivals into
their new assignments, invited him to dinner.
Smith's abuse as a child left him fearful that night, he said. It "was the reason I froze and went along."
Smith initially reported the incident without naming the sergeant, an
option permitted in the military for victims of alleged sexual assaults
who want to receive counseling but not start a formal investigation.
He changed his mind and filed a formal complaint, launching the
criminal case, two months later after a friend told him she had heard
the same sergeant had been involved in a similar incident with another
airman. The alleged victim later denied to investigators that any
wrongdoing had occurred.
"I wanted to move on with my life, but the moment I reported it, it just made things worse," Smith said.
His Air Force medical records show he was considered a suicide risk
after he said, "I might as well kill myself." Smith insisted he was only
joking, but when the Air Force officials checked his computer, they
found online searches on overdosing on cold medicine. He said they were
He says that he repeatedly ran into the sergeant he had accused and
that the sergeant once laughed at him as he drove past the gatehouse
where Smith was working. After he complained of insomnia and anxiety, he
was diagnosed with "acute stress reaction."
After he was transferred to Travis to be closer to his family, he was
assigned to work in the base chapel. He assisted with memorial services
and briefed new arrivals about the chaplain's office.
In a memo in May that recommended against his discharge, Col. Robert
R. Cannon, the wing chaplain at Travis, praised Smith as "an outstanding
airman" who "embodies the Air Force core values."
Smith's assignment at the chapel was temporary, however, and his
commander, Lt. Col. Enrico W. Venditti Jr., turned down his request to
be trained for a permanent assignment because he had not yet served two
years, as the rules require.
And because Smith was barred from carrying a weapon because of the
suicide risk, Venditti also said he could not be a security guard again.
That was fine with Smith. "I have a medical condition that does not
allow me to work in the security forces," he told his doctor, according
to Air Force records. "I was sexually assaulted by a security forces
member. I will take almost any other job."
On Dec. 4, three Air Force doctors agreed at a two-hour hearing at
Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio that Smith should be given a
Smith has asked the Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, to
overturn the discharge order, his last chance to stay in the service.
"I really feel betrayed," Smith said. "I love the Air Force, and I love being able to serve my country."