A clinical psychologist hired by Travis Air Force Base in California to help military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder has been arrested and charged with raping patients.
The psychologist, identified in court documents as Heath Sommer, 41, is accused of using "exposure therapy" on patients who had been sexually assaulted while deployed. He was ordered Monday to stand trial on three felony sexual assault charges after he allegedly targeted female service members in 2014 and 2015 while working at the base's David Grant Medical Center.
"Many of these victims were war veterans diagnosed with PTSD due to various forms of trauma, sexual and non-sexual, while active duty in the U.S. Air Force. As their therapist, the defendant was in a position of power," according to the complaint. "While some victims were strong enough to stand up to the defendant and refuse his advances, others weren't. Those victims, especially the victims of sexual assault, are now even more traumatized due to the defendant's actions."
The alleged abuse spans from 2010 to 2016, according to court documents.
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Travis Air Force Base Deputy Chief of Public Affairs Tonya Racasner provided the following statement to NBC Bay Area on Monday:
"There is zero-tolerance for sexual assault across the Air Force. Base administration is working with local authorities to make sure that all the victims in this case are taken care of. The suspect is a civilian contractor who worked for the Air Force."
Solano County Sheriff's Office records show Sommer was booked into Stanton Correctional Facility in Fairfield on May 3rd, with bail set at $750,000. Sheriff's Office records also show Sommer faces multiple charges, including sexual battery, rape and oral copulation.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
A telephone message for his attorney, Thomas Maas, seeking comment was not immediately returned. Maas told the judge at a hearing Monday in Fairfield, California, that the sex was consensual, according to The Daily Republic newspaper. Maas said his client had not committed a crime and the actions were part of his therapy work.
Sommer was vetted by the contracting company, Aloha Health Joint Venture, and the Air Force also did a background check, Air Force officials said.
"Nothing popped up during the background check," said Tonya Racasner, a base spokeswoman.
As soon as Air Force officials learned of the allegations, they took immediate action and suspended him, she added.
"We take sexual assault very seriously," Racasner said.
In light of the case, she said the base is looking at its procedures and also reviewing the treatments given at its medical center, she said, adding that exposure therapy usually entails writing a narrative about one's experience.
"We don't really condone exposure therapy," she said.
The base also reached out to all of Sommer's patients to offer help, she said.
The case comes as sexual assault continues to be a pervasive problem in the military.
According to an annual Pentagon report released in April, the number of reported sexual assaults grew by about 10 percent, while sexual harassment cases were up by 16 percent over the previous year.
Pentagon officials say the increase in reporting reflects a broader confidence in the system and is a positive trend because sexual assault is a highly underreported crime. But it's unclear if the jump in harassment and retaliation complaints reflect a similar confidence or simply represent a growing problem.
Travis Air Force officials say they are encouraging victims to continue to come forward and hope the Sommer case does not deter them from seeking help.
"We know this is an on-going issue worldwide, and not just in the Air Force," Racasner said. "We just feel for us, it's all about educating folks, and ensuring individuals are being effectively taken care of."
Air Force officials said military investigators are working with the Fairfield police on the Sommer case.