“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” -August Wilson
I am wrestling with a demon today. I’ve battled this demon a thousand times, and for me this is the same fight different day. It pounced on me the way it usually does. I’m doing the innocuous, going about my day, and out of nowhere the idea of it gets mentioned or the event itself is brought up. Bam! I am transported across a time space continuum to the end of 2003. I may not journey there physically, but emotionally I never left. My feelings about this event have never changed, and there is a shame tied to it I do my best to hide.
See the Veterans Administration is doing a survey of women veterans. They are trying to figure out how and why we female veterans do not use their medical facilities, or apply for benefits. I agreed to take part in the forty-five minute phone survey. Just trying to do my part and help out a government organization that does a lot of good for some good people. I answered questions while loading my dishwasher and kept tabs on my young children playing Lego in the other room.
I knew the questions would be in the survey. They had to be. The government has required the military make every job code in the service branches open to both the male and female genders by 2016. A tall order in light of the growing rate of reported service related sexual harassment and assault cases. Of course they were going to ask. My husband already provided me with the special pamphlet on benefits I am eligible for with the Veterans Administration. I fall into a special new category of those who have experienced “Military Sexual Trauma.” He gave me the pamphlet over six months ago. Against my better judgment, I have yet to get placed in the system. I don’t want to go in and fill out the paperwork. Setting up a time to enroll would mean I would be planning a future-wrestling match with this old demon. I also loathe, and utterly hate thinking of myself as a victim.
Right after answering the questions about, “my comfort level seeking mental health treatment at a VA facility”, the sexual trauma questions began. I felt my back muscles tense as anger rolled in the pit of my stomach. Each and every question about sexual misconduct received the answer of, “Yes” from me. By the last of her six questions, I heard myself not letting her finish the question. Half way through her sentence, I was blurting out a sharp, “Yes!” When the series of questions ended, I wondered if I needed to have her go back and redo the questions about my mental health. I was on edge. Ten years have passed, but talking about it incited me like the events happened this past Tuesday.
I hate to even mention what happened to me. I look at the inappropriate behavior I was subjected to as minor, compared to what I know happened to other women. However, I was subpoenaed to Germany to testify against my Command Sargent Major, who was on trail for sexual assault. The JAG officers who took my sworn statements, told me my testimony was the most compelling, from the pool of evidence submitted by other female officers. Of the victims who were flown out of country for the trial, I was the only female officer to take the stand. I can’t argue against these facts. They indicate what happened to me was not minor. My mistake first and foremost was in my thinking. I allowed it to occur because I wanted it to be minor. I tolerated it. I tolerated a lot of things because I existed in an environment where many frowned on my presence. It was an environment, which had been pried open to allow my entrance. Even though women started working in the regular Army several decades prior to me, many male service members longed for the days when my sex did not pollute their Army.
Call me a fatalist, but I have little faith the level of sexual misconduct or assault cases, which occur each year in the armed services, will go down. Just like I know there will forever be a porn and prostitution industry, I know these things will occur. We cannot change the people who commit these crimes. They exist, and they always will. You can ignore them like you ignore the porn industry, but not paying them any attention, does not mean they go away. You can say there is a zero tolerance policy, just like partaking in prostitution is a prosecutable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but I’ve never witnessed these things enforced.
The people committing sex crimes will never be removed from society. Sexual harassment and inequality will continue. There is nothing we can do to curb the people who cultivate and embrace a value system that exonerates such behavior. It’s only just this year, 2014, that a bill has been set in front of the Federal Armed Forces committee that would automatically dishonorable discharge prosecuted sexual misconduct offenders. Even a whiff of sexual harassment in the civilian workplace will get a person fired. However the military has long been the champion of letting this behavior slide. Offenders routinely receiving a slap on the wrist before being sent back to their unit.
I was an officer. I learned and was a careful study of the high-ranking female officers around me. These women, each and every one, had dealt with worse treatment. Each braved an even more rugged prior era of inequality than what I experienced. A female soldier, generally speaking, is the minority of a minority. The total number of United States citizens who serve in a branch of the armed forces is about 1%. Of that 1% females make up about 14.6% of the total armed forces. I was groomed by these women and taught to pick my battles. It was a black mark for a female officer to be labeled “excitable” by her male peers. In order to measure up to my male peers I had to go above and beyond. To meet a male peers mediocre performance, I had to be exceptional, and being labeled excitable would not help my career.
I had to tolerate a certain level of off color jokes, remarks, or things said in poor taste. In 2003 I was serving in a time when the Army prided itself in being modern. There was a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. We were all indoctrinated with annual mandatory briefings set with the intent of providing the Army with a harassment free workplace. Gone were the years of tolerating lewd behavior that would land you in a courtroom if you worked in the civilian sector.
In my opinion, not a whole lot changed. The most glaring example was when I visited the aviation unit assigned to my higher headquarters in Bosnia. The Texas Army National Guard was running the day-to-day operations of flying Black Hawks from the airfield at Eagle Base. Pin up playboy posters were on display under the glass covering their check in desk. The walls of the Intelligence shop had two full size posters of women wearing, what some might call, bikini bathing suits. The computer desktop wallpaper of several government workstations displayed half naked women. I mentioned my observations to my supervisor, and I called my associate out who worked there. He didn’t see any reason for my objection to his wall art.
All afternoon memories of sitting in military courtroom in Germany on January 8th 2004, played on and off in my mind. I wrestled with the demon, feeling the pain I felt hearing the testimony of the enlisted soldiers Command Sargent Major Rannenberg sexually assaulted. I battle guilt I harbor for not stepping up and filing a complaint about Rannenberg’s inappropriate actions towards me. I didn’t do the right thing. I was worried about being labeled excitable. I worried they would tell me “it was nothing”, or I was “exaggerating the truth”, or “I didn’t know how to take a compliment.” I could what if all night, but it will never change my decision to ignore something I knew wasn’t okay.
I am disappointed the anger and frustration I feel from this event has not changed. Time and distance has not done the job of dulling or separating me from the anger I feel whenever I think about what happened. I guess I need to wrestle with this demon more. I need to forgive myself. I decided I need to work towards a goal of not biting off the heads of strangers or survey takers who might unwittingly address this old demon.
*If you or a veteran you know has experienced Military Sexual Trauma, I encourage you to look into the services the Veterans Administration has available on their MST website HERE.