Trigger Warning: The following is an anonymous personal account of survival after MST. Please see our list of resources at the end of this article if you or someone you know is struggling in the aftermath of Military Sexual Trauma.
SHARING MY STORY
I am a military spouse, mother, friend, combat Veteran… and a rape survivor. Not long ago I was asked to tell my story. I was asked to bare my soul and tell the world that I was a part of the “Me Too” movement through an article in a national media outlet. There was no option for me to post anonymously. The choice was to own my truth or retreat back into the shadows where I was known only as a wife, mom, employee, volunteer… but not as a victim of rape.
AN UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH
Military sexual trauma is something I never thought I would be forced to connect on with my fellow Veterans. It was never a story I thought I would be mine, or one I would wrestle with telling. It is a funny thing when there is a connection made over something like this. There is sort of a push pull approach to the subject. I struggle with even saying the word rape and often feel perilously perched on the edge of a cliff when the topic comes up. Any time I have told my story, on my terms, it has never come back to me. No one has ever brought it up again. No one ever wants to enter back into that conversation. It makes even the best of people uncomfortable.
AN EMOTIONAL GUT PUNCH
A friend who knew my story emailed me asking if I would be interested in writing an article highlighting MST and its aftermath. Reading the email was a shocking punch to the gut and it pulled the rug out from under me emotionally. Sometimes I recognize my growth in those moments and sometimes I think I could be starting all over from square one again. Sometimes I am right back in the events of early fall 2005 in Northern Iraq. Triggers are always lurking. This one made sense, but so many are a shocking ambush of emotions and fear.
FIGHTING RAW EMOTIONS
Even 15 years after my assault, the emotions are just as raw as they were in the days that immediately followed being raped. I sob and cry, I fight feelings of panic and fear. I question myself and others and wrestle with not being believed, wondering if I could have simply misunderstood or dreamt it, questioning my actions, self-blame, and not fighting back like I imagined I would have if ever put in that situation. I am a fighter, without a doubt. I reacted well in combat and led troops and convoys through attacks… but I froze during my own attack. I also froze in the aftermath of my assault. I chose not to report and to hide from the truth. This choice would cause me just as much pain and guilt as the actual incident.
ARE YOU SURE THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED?
I remember sitting in the Troop Medical Clinic asking to be tested for STDs after an unwanted sexual experience. The nurse asked me if I was sure it was unwanted or just unprotected. The next crushing blow came when I was denied those tests because it meant I would have to make a complaint to the battalion and face the questions of my command. My other option was to say I had an extramarital affair. I had just been raped, and those were my only choices. In some ways, I felt more backed into a corner there in that clinic than the night I was physically attacked. I ended up having to wait months and walk into a planned parenthood facility anonymously to get those tests and results. The Army would fail me many times in the aftermath, both physically and emotionally.
NOT ALL DAMAGE IS VISIBLE
I knew at that time that I was not in an Army that would defend me or believe me. I was a young, attractive female platoon leader… of course I asked for it, right? I admit that even I had questioned other women who claimed sexual assault. How did I end up being both part of the problem and part of the persecution? I thought maybe I deserved this fate for questioning other women who came before me. It is easy to believe a rape happens when there is visible evidence of violence… it is harder for people when they can’t see the bruises and the scars. But there were so many bruises and scars… some I still carry to this day.
There is so much about that night and that event that I still blame myself for. I do blame him, but I also know that I made choices that put myself in a vulnerable position. If nothing else, I should have known better… at least that is what I have told myself for the better part of 15 years.
For a time, I told myself that things happened at war and as long as I never went to war again, I would be safe. I oddly justified it as an ugly byproduct of war. I had no idea that the next ten years would be a war I would fight endlessly and repeatedly within myself.
STUFF IT DOWN AND MOVE ON
In the weeks that followed my assault, I walked around like a zombie. The only other female platoon leader in my unit (also a friend of mine) called me out and asked me what was wrong. I broke down and told her. I’ll never forget her telling me to stuff it down and hold my head high and just move on. She told me to lean into it and not let it get the better of me. I had to work with him afterwards. I had to look him in the eye and know. Sometimes I thought everyone knew. But more than that, I knew the Army wouldn’t believe me. I knew it would cost me my career.
THE HEAVY COST OF WAR
Although I didn’t pursue justice through military channels, it did, in fact, cost me my career. I knew I could never deploy again. I could never allow myself to be in that position again. For a time, I told myself that things happened at war and as long as I never went to war again, I would be safe. I oddly justified it as an ugly byproduct of war. I had no idea that the next ten years would be a war I would fight endlessly and repeatedly within myself. I thought I could bury it and hide it and close off that part of myself and never allow it to surface. I was never so very wrong about anything in my life. It completely and brutally consumed me.
THE BATTLE I COULDN’T ESCAPE
When I first got back, it was waking up panicked in the middle of the night feeling like there was an elephant on my chest. It was navigating sex with my husband. It was ruthlessly avoiding any trigger that would cause an adrenaline rush. Fight or flight is an unforgiving beast. I literally couldn’t watch a movie or TV show that was suspenseful. I still struggle with that. I did not like the feeling of adrenaline. It made me want to fight in a way that I didn’t that night… so I avoided it like the plague. Then came the sleepless nights. I fixed the problem of waking up in a panic by simply not going to sleep. I lived day to day avoiding anything that I thought would trigger me… and mostly avoided the night.
I remember thinking the kids didn’t know until one night I was getting the girls ready for bed and my oldest tried to drag a chair over to the door because that is how we slept—in constant fear and panic.
SURVIVAL THROUGH CONTROL
So much of the ten years that followed Iraq and my assault are such a blur. I survived. At least I thought I did. I would tell you that because I was living and working and presenting as a successful wife and mother, that I was fine. Appearance was everything to me and appearing strong was my ever-constant mission. Looking back, friends have described me as robotic and automated. I thrived on control and safety. I relied heavily on alarms and cameras in the house. Once it was dark, I couldn’t physically open a door. I couldn’t handle going outside alone in the dark.
I went to incredible lengths to both hide my neurotic need for control and my effort to maintain it. I remember thinking the kids didn’t know until one night I was getting the girls ready for bed and my oldest tried to drag a chair over to the door because that is how we slept—in constant fear and panic.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
Even seeing my children take my normal, everyday crazy for gospel wasn’t enough to break me. It wasn’t until that friend who told me to bury it called me. That is when I finally broke and hit bottom.
On a normal Tuesday in January of 2015, she called me out of the blue. I hadn’t spoken with her in years. She called me in tears and told me that she was wrong. She cried that she should have told me to fight. She was trying to protect me, at the time, from the Army she knew would challenge me and damage me. She told me she wished she had supported me and the fight that would have surely followed. I fell to the floor after that call. I cried and sobbed and it all came flooding out. I cried so hard I puked in the middle of my kitchen floor. It wouldn’t be my last meeting with that emotion and outcome.
FACING MY DEMONS AND ASKING FOR HELP
I made the decision right there that I needed to deal with my demons. I made the choice to fight. I literally googled therapists and found a woman who was a prior service military officer who specialized in PTSD from sexual assault and combat. And she took my insurance. I called to make an appointment and they told me she wasn’t taking on new clients. I fell apart and sobbed to the poor receptionist and told her my story over the phone. I begged her, saying that if I couldn’t deal with this now, I would bury it again and never let it see the light of day… I would put it back in the box. It was now or never. She called the doctor and explained the situation. The doctor agreed to work me in to her schedule.
UNPACKING THE TRAUMA
I spent the next 18 months in serious and intense counseling. Sometimes weighing whether I needed inpatient care or if I could continue to unpack this trauma during a short one-hour session, then pack it back up and pretend to be a functioning mom and adult until my next appointment. When I started counseling, I couldn’t even say the word rape. I referred to it as an assault. I broke down often. I had panic attacks and I allowed myself to feel the trauma I had been running from for a decade. I learned and accepted that I did have PTSD, whether I wanted to admit it or not.
I firmly believe that I only made it through because of the support system I had holding me up. My support system was the furthest thing possible from the Army—which should have caught me when I fell. There were days I couldn’t go back to work because I was hysterical on the side of the road after an appointment. There were friends who stepped in and checked on me, made me meals, watched my kids, picked me up off the floor, pounded pavement with me and just listened.
RECONCILING THE PAIN
The entire time, my husband was away serving in the very Army that tried to destroy me. Life seemed like a very unfair and complex enigma that I was thankful for and loved, but was also very angry at. Uncle Sam had cut me to the core, but it was also my livelihood. I wanted so much to hate the Army that had hurt me but I was also so proud of that life and that service. To reconcile that pain, I faded into the background of OUR service. I was JUST an Army wife. The bronze star on the wall was mine, but I let people think it was my husband’s. I turned away Veteran plates and generally shied away from things that highlighted my own service.
There are days when I want to scream that I served. That I fought for this country. But usually that sentiment is overtaken by the feeling that I don’t want to be judged for my service or my combat experience. I don’t want the questions about what I saw or did or experienced. That includes being sexually assaulted by another member of the Army that I so believed in. People always want the sensational stories of war. They don’t want the ugly truth that terrible things happen at war.
FIRING A BULLET
I have always wondered if my story was worth telling. If I was more than just a number or a statistic. I summoned the courage to file with the VA and they denied me. They didn’t believe there was enough evidence to prove I was attacked. Telling my story publicly would be like firing a bullet I can never get back and cannot control. I see the power of telling my story. But I doubt that I will ever be ready to tell it publicly. Being a part of the “Me Too” movement has consequences and comes at a cost I don’t know if I will ever be willing to pay. There would be collateral damage once that shot is fired—and I would never be able to unring that bell.
I’m not sure I want my children to google my name and find the story describing my rape. I’m not sure I ever want them to know. Is that hiding in the darkness? Or is that closing the door and moving forward. Maybe there is too much gray area and not enough black and white. Maybe the decision will never feel settled, but I am just not sure I can open myself up to potential further rejection.
THE LONG JOURNEY TO CLOSURE
Closure comes in many forms, and it can be an impossibly long journey. If it was your wife or daughter or friend, what would you tell her to do? Would you judge her for not wanting to speak up? Is staying silent—as long as it isn’t driven by fear—okay? Is silence ever okay? I wholeheartedly agree that telling your story gives you more control. I know there is power in the light, and vindication in not carrying this burden alone. I see how it can give you control over the narrative… I also see how you lose control of the interpretation. The internet and social media can be brutal and there is a part of me that wonders if the trolls lurking online will inflict as much pain as the Army did when it failed me so completely.
Making my peace with telling my story—even anonymously—is an important waypoint on my closure journey. At this stage of my healing, I can see how I am so much further along than where I was. I can say the word rape now. I can acknowledge my pain and my growth. I know I am finally back. I am present and truly living my life and not just going through the motions. And most importantly, I keep putting in the hard work. I have fought the good fight and I continue to enter the arena and dare greatly. My closure is knowing that my assault and the Army did not break me for good. In the end, despite the scars I carry, I will no longer be defined or controlled by that night in Iraq in 2005.
US Army Veteran
Military sexual trauma is a very real epidemic in the military. It affects military readiness and places national security at risk, it ends careers (usually the victim’s), and causes deep levels of trauma that can take years and sometimes generations to heal. There is no environment or situation where sexual assault is ever a victim’s fault. Period. Responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of perpetrators, whether or not they face consequences for their actions. Moving forward, it is our hope that pressure will continue to be placed on the DOD and each branch of the military to enact real change, ending the permissive culture and longstanding systems in place that punish victims while looking the other way on those who commit sexual violence.
Below, we’ve listed a few resources available for help and support, but it’s not exhaustive. If you or someone you know is struggling in the aftermath of MST, whether it happened last month or 25 years ago, please reach out for help, and don’t stop asking until you find it. Survival after MST is possible, and you don’t have to face the journey alone.
RAINN – The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization