Six months before the “Me Too” movement, I was nineteen and serving on my first overseas deployment. I was so proud to be working in the hospital, doing my job, learning, and growing.
On St. Patrick’s Day, my life was forever changed. At my place of work, a patient sexually assaulted me.
When it happened, I froze. He was an officer, and I was just a junior enlisted soldier. As is common with perpetrators of sexual violence, there was also trickery and deception involved that had me questioning what just happened.
Still, I reported the assault immediately to a supervisor, who then sternly told the patient “not to touch the medics.” I pushed it out of my mind and went back to work.
But afterwards, I skipped chow and went back to the barracks, just feeling really horrible and “off.”
I was off duty the next day, and when I went to lunch, one of my favorite NCOs, who happened to be a military policeman, came to sit with me. He called me “Doc.” I looked up to him both as a big brother and also because he was well over six feet tall. He immediately noticed that “off” feeling that I couldn’t seem to shake.
When he asked me what was going on, I told him that something weird happened to me at work. As I recounted the situation, his eyes widened as I described behavior that he clearly thought was wrong. And he also clearly thought that just having my supervisor give the harasser a verbal warning wasn’t enough.
Even as I sat there, still wondering if I had made too big a deal of the incident, I saw him, the patient who assaulted me, walk by in the chow hall.
“He doesn’t even live in this zone,” I thought, my heart racing. “Officers don’t live in this zone.”
My NCO agreed, and kept telling me, “Doc, that’s not normal.” And he encouraged me to tell my company commander, but I was scared.
Seeing that, he walked me over to see the company commander, his seasoned steady presence calming me down, and backing me up. He sat with me while I recounted to the commander all that had happened, and then he walked with me back to the barracks.
From then on, whenever I went anywhere, I had an NCO with me. If it wasn’t my tall NCO, it was someone I’ll call the “calm NCO” from the same military police section. Everywhere I went, I had my NCO guardians, carefully watching and protecting. I never walked alone, ate alone, or went anywhere alone.
The report of the incident went all the way up to our battalion commander, who had a stern talk with this young officer. Later, the battalion commander called me over after a briefing, and asked to talk to me in a crowded auditorium, with other troops in earshot. I stood at attention as he told me he had talked to the young officer, who had just felt so bad that “he scared me.” The battalion commander told me the young officer was even crying in his office, and the commander said he was sure it wouldn’t happen again.
I walked back to our zone with the tall NCO accompanying me — and towering over me — and told him what the battalion commander had said, adding, “I feel bad that I said anything.”
My tall NCO gave the calm NCO a knowing look, then told me firmly, “Doc, don’t feel bad.”
My tall NCO had seen this young officer after his meeting with the commander, talking to friends indignantly and making fun of me and my attempt to report his behavior. He wasn’t sorry. His tears were for show; he just didn’t want to be reprimanded.
After the assault, and despite the commander’s lecture, my harasser was frequently in my zone, even though he didn’t live there. It felt like I couldn’t escape him. At the gym, or the chow hall, he would just appear.
But my NCOs were always with me, at the gym, at breakfast, and at the smoke pit in the evening, cutting it up and calming me down. Or trying to. During this time, I began to have anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, and even suicidal ideations. I was sure that I was unsafe. This same thing and even much worse things were happening to many of the other junior enlisted females on our base. It was clear to me that I was not going to receive help from the chain of command until something much worse happened to me.
Thankfully, my NCO guardians kept safe, at least physically.
While I was overseas, I had no words for what happened to me. I didn’t ever say out loud “sexual assault.” I didn’t say “stalking.” I didn’t use the words victim or survivor. And I certainly didn’t recognize that I had the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s when the body’s natural response to trauma, like hypervigilance, anxiety or nightmares, which normally subsides in a month or so, instead becomes habitual, and interferes with daily life. I had only heard of PTSD for war heroes, not for young girls too far from home.
All I knew was something unfair had happened to me.
I also knew that soldiers who asked for help for mental health issues stopped progressing in their careers, so if I sought help for my traumatic response to the assault and the stalking, I feared the same might happen to me. And I wasn’t going to let this abusive officer take all that I had worked so hard for away. He had taken enough.
So, I didn’t get any mental health services.
As the weeks/months wore on, I told a female NCO about some of my nightmares and the way that I was feeling hunted and unsafe, she was the first to verbalize directly to me that something wasn’t right — my trauma response was interfering with my every waking, and sleeping, hour.
She helped me get home as fast as possible, on our unit’s first rotation out, when I was originally slated to in the last group to leave the country. I am not sure I would have made it home if I had been overseas much longer, as my mental health was deteriorating quickly.
There was no “Me Too” movement when I was assaulted. It was not something people talked about. It felt like it was my burden alone to carry. And no one in my chain of command would step in to help me.
I see now that though many things were handled poorly, I was not alone. I had a tall NCO, a calm NCO, and a female NCO that saved my life.
As we take time to focus on sexual assault awareness and prevention this month, it is easy to focus on all the horrible things that soldiers have done to their brothers and sisters in arms. I am part of an estimated 42% of female service members that have survived military sexual trauma.
But as a survivor, I don’t want us to lose sight of all the soldiers who do uphold our shared values. Though I was traumatized and wronged by soldiers, I was protected and consoled by them as well.
That is why I am writing this, to shine a light, and showcase the hope that can be found in times of seemingly unrelenting suffering. I want to illuminate the way that by stepping in when you see something wrong happening to those with less power or rank than you, you can change, or save someone’s life.
Without the care and protection of those NCO guardians, I believe I would have killed myself.
To all the NCOs who saved my life: Thank you.
I am married now, I have children, and I am an NCO that tries to slow down and notice soldiers more, because of the way you slowed down and noticed me in my sorrow. It didn’t take a movement or a spotlight for you to notice the road I was walking. And I never had to ask you to walk it with me.
You exemplify what it means to be the “Backbone of the Army.” Thank you for being unwavering, bold, and fearless. Thank you for being compassionate, gentle, and empathetic. Thank you for helping me to love serving in the Army, despite its flaws, for almost a decade. Thank you for your selfless service to those who serve beside you.
Thank you for all that you do.
Sgt. C is an Army sergeant who was granted a pseudonym to protect them from potential harm to their career.
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