Heath J. Sommer, a clinical psychologist that specializes in treating patients with post-traumatic stress, was ordered to stand trial on Monday, after being charged with raping several female service members under his care. Sommer pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Sommer was hired by the U.S. Air Force to work at David Grant Medical Center on Travis Air Force Base. Aside from treating patients with combat related post-traumatic stress, he began treating patients for stresses related to being victimized by sexual assault. If the allegations against Sommer are correct, those patients, who sought help recovering from sex crimes, found themselves victimized once again by Sommer.
Sommer’s attorney, Thomas Maas, reportedly did not refute the Sommer had sex with some of his patients during the hearing on Monday, though he claimed that it was not only consensual, but actually “part of his therapy work.”
Prosecutors reportedly echoed Sommer’s claims that he approached having sex with his patients as a part of their treatment — a technique referred to as “exposure therapy” that Sommer claimed would help them overcome negative feelings associated with sex. Three female service members and former patients provided testimony regarding incidents in which Sommer exposed himself to them, had them perform oral sex on him in his office, or even relocating the session to his home to “re-experience” every facet of her sexual assault before having sex with him in a “positive and loving” way.
Exposure therapy has been proven effective in treating some forms of phobias and anxiety disorders, though it rarely is considered as a viable treatment for trauma recovery. Often, exposure therapy for veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress will include retrospective analysis of the traumatic event, like writing about one’s experiences as vividly as possible.
Sommer was hired via a third-party contracting company in 2014 and underwent a background check prior to starting work, though the background check reportedly produced nothing that would suggest the man was unfit for his position in the medical center. Air Force officials claimed they immediately suspended Sommer when allegations against him surfaced.
“We take sexual assault very seriously,” Tonya Racasner, a spokesperson for Travis Air Force Base, told the press.
She went on to address the defense Sommer mounted, saying, “we don’t really condone exposure therapy,” even when executed properly and professionally.
In April, a Pentagon study revealed that reports of sexual assault within the military increased by nearly 10% between 2016 and 2017, and reports of sexual harassment went up by 16% — though experts have argued that these rising rates are not necessarily indicative of a worsening situation, but rather a growing confidence in the system leading to more service members coming forward.
“We attribute this largely to people hearing their commanders and their leadership talking about how important this is … how that no one should have to tolerate sexual assault … to come forward help that you need so we can get you the restorative care that you require and then also to hold defenders appropriately accountable,” said Nathan Galbreath, the deputy director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Though not everyone shares in the Defense Department’s optimism.
“The military must not rely on an increase in reporting as a sign of progress,” said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, Director of Government Relations at the Service Women’s Action Network.
“The number of reports could be due to more confidence that justice will be done, however it could also mean that more assaults are occurring — or both. The increase in reporting should not be spun as good news while sexual assaults continue unabated,” Manning said.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force