Silence & Military Sexual Assault: A Survivor Story

by Amy McCarthy, an editor, writer, community manager, and feminist who can be found playing Top Chef in her kitchen when not causing all kinds of trouble on Twitter. Follow Amy.

[Content note: Sexual violence, description of assault, reproductive coercion, self-harm.]

Over the past few years, we've started hearing more frequently the stories of a number of women and men who were sexually assaulted while they served in the United States Armed Forces and reported their assaults.

In mid-2012, 35 instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX were removed from their positions, a majority of whom were removed for "illicit sexual conduct," including rape. We have heard the story of Marine Lt. Elle Helmer, who was raped in 2006 by a superior officer. According to CNN, when she reported her assault to her commanding officer, he discouraged her from getting a rape kit. You can read the survivor stories of Rebecca, Terri, Heath, Darchelle, Panayiota, Jenny, Michael, Heath, and Amando here.

What we don't hear as often, though, are the stories of the thousands of other women and men in the United States Armed Forces, deployed and stationed stateside, who are victims of rape at the hands of superior officers, peers, and civilian instructors, but never report their assaults.

According to Protect Our Defenders, an organization that works to support military rape victims, "only 13.5% of sexual assaults within the services were reported." That means, instead of the official number of 3,158 sexual assaults that were reported in 2010 (the most recent year that reporting is available), it is likely that the number is much closer to 19,000.

One of those 19,000 victims who have been silenced by rape culture is my dear friend, who has chosen to be identified here only as "S." She spoke to me about her experience, with the explicit intent of publicly sharing her story.

S, a strong, vibrant young woman who has a bright future ahead of her, joined the Navy to get out of her small town, get a little direction, maybe see the world. She served in the Navy from 2009 until 2012, during which time she studied aircraft electrical systems.

The assault happened at a party celebrating her group's "A" School Graduation. (At "A" School, sailors learn how to do the jobs they enlisted to do.) After the ceremony, most of her graduating class got rooms at a local hotel because they'd all been drinking. S shared her room with a woman in her class.

After deciding to call it a night, S left for bed, telling her roommate that she'd leave the deadbolt to their room unlocked so she could get in when she was through partying. When S woke up a few hours later feeling sick, her attacker was raping her. Even though she was sick and continued to vomit on her attacker, he continued to assault her.

Once the assault was over, S's attacker left and she hid in the bathroom until morning. Soon after, S flew home several states away to celebrate Christmas with her family, not telling anyone.

She kept the assault to herself until she had to tell her boyfriend. She'd become pregnant as a result of the rape and wanted an abortion. Her boyfriend "didn't believe in abortion," and wanted S to carry the pregnancy to term so that he could "raise the child as his own." He propsed, because he thought it was the "right" thing to do.

Seventeen weeks into the pregnancy, S realized that she couldn't go through with it. She ended her pregnancy, and her relationship suffered because of that decision. It eventually fizzled out.

Undiagnosed PTSD, stress, and anxiety were beginning to wear on her and she felt like she had to get out. In February of 2012, S attempted suicide.

S told her supervisor at work, who was also a friend and insisted that S go to the hospital for a check-up. Doctors checked her into the hospital for a mandatory overnight psychiatric evaluation.

"I had already started therapy when I attempted suicide," says S, "but I hadn't really told anyone my story. I had avoided thinking about it for so long that the memories had become overwhelming." Now just over one year later, S is out of the Navy and doing better. I asked her how she's healing.

"Getting out of the Navy helped. I had to get away from that uniform—it was a constant reminder. It's easier to talk about it now," she says.

But she still experiences the lingering effects of the sexual assault in sometimes unexpected ways: "The FedEx guy at work touched me yesterday at work and I freaked out, and I still can't get in an elevator with a man and not feel threatened, but I'm doing better."

I also asked her what she hoped to accomplish by telling her story. Her response was poignant: "I hope that it makes someone feel less alone. I felt lost when it happened. Like, I couldn't tell anyone. So I didn't. When I found out I was pregnant, I told [my ex-boyfriend] about it. He flipped out and blamed me. Saying I shouldn't have been there and that I was stupid for putting myself in a situation where it could have happened."

"I just hope that I make someone realize that there are people all around them who have experienced what they're going through...and the aftermath. And they just have to reach out. The sooner, the better."

S and the 15,841 other silenced sexual assault victims in the United States Armed Forces deserve more.

* * *

If you have survived sexual assault and want to reach out for support, there are resources that can help you (the following is not a comprehensive list):

Resources within the military: Military OneSource and US Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

In conjunction with the military: RAINN's SAFEHelpline.

Resources outside the military for veterans of the US Armed Forces: Military Rape Crisis Center.

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