“I am a survivor of military sexual trauma (MST).” There, I said it—I have had to say it out loud many times just to make myself believe it. I have had to question my own knowledge of interpersonal relationship violence and sexual assault and then simultaneously separate my innate assumptions that there is no way that it happened to me. I am not a victim; I am a survivor.
As a Marine Corps veteran, I did something that is considered brave and honorable. Although my experiences with MST are less than honorable, they have aided me in researching MST and providing expertise on gender constructs in the military—something that can help others. I debunked some common myths about MST and addressed some common misconceptions about wearing the military uniform in last month’s article. You can check it out for more information: “MST Through the Eyes of Active Duty Service Members.”
What is MST?
The National Center for PTSD generates a broad definition of MST. The definition addresses unwanted physical contact while on active duty, by other active duty members, whether you were on or off base. The definition also includes situations where unwanted advances and harassment are considered MST—any instance where a service member “is involved against his or her will – he or she may have been pressured into sexual activities (for example, with threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied better treatment in exchange for sex).
Most people think that MST is something that happens to men or women only if they are POWs or if they are assaulted by the enemy. I think it is time to debunk the ethnocentric myth that only foreigner enemies could possible rape men or women in the military.
Off to a Bad Start
I didn’t start off on the right foot when I joined the Marine Corps. I had an overbearing step-father that was abusive in many ways and at one point, early in my career, he called my command’s senior enlisted advisor (this is a person that is usually an E-7 or above) and informed him that I had been out drinking and having sex with men. I had a target on my back ever since; he pretty much single-handedly destroyed my career before it even began.
Fast-forward to a few years later after I had arrived back home from my second deployment. I had spent two deployments in Kuwait (part of the time), Ramadi, and Fallujah. I was 21 years old and honestly, despite my step father’s accusations early on, I had only just lost my virginity a year prior. Since my reputation was already tarnished, my personal life was often spotlighted at work by peers and superiors.
To top things off, I ended up taking my 17-year-old sister from Ohio to my duty station in California—I didn’t want her to go through what I did at home. I had to move out of the barracks, with no BAH (this is extra money for military members to use for a housing allowance), and get her started with her new life. When I left for my third deployment she eventually got a job and joined the Army.
Shortly after she moved in, she was in a car accident in my only vehicle and I was left trying to hitch rides to work in order to be on time for morning physical training (PT). One of my Gunnery Sergeants (GySgt, E-7) offered to start driving me to/from work since it was on the way—as long as I didn’t mind going on his motorcycle sometimes. I was thrilled! I always respected him, he and the other two GySgt’s that ran our platoon were former infantry Marines, or “grunts.” They were strong, fair, and taught us a lot.
I Never Saw it Coming
It never crossed my mind that he was being inappropriate or had an alternate agenda. I genuinely thought that he wanted to help me out. I had so much going on: we were training for another deployment and my sister’s situation was difficult to adjust to. I dated and had fun like most of my peers did. In between deployments we all did some heavy partying and were pretty carefree. I think maybe I was too carefree because I did not see this situation’s severity until years later.
His comments started subtly: telling me I was cute, had a nice body from working out, and that he didn’t understand why I didn’t have a boyfriend. A couple of times after work he took me out to eat. I was excited since I loved food and figured I would get some mentoring time, like the other guys did, with my leadership. I was not attracted to this man, I just enjoyed his company and I enjoyed feeling like someone with power noticed me.
One day, we were walking out of a restaurant to his motorcycle. I felt my panties being pulled up from my waist and then I felt a snap! I guess they were showing a little bit when I had gotten up from my seat in the restaurant? He reached down the back of my pants (all the way), grabbed the middle strap, pulled it up and then released it so that it snapped my lower back—it left a mark. I actually said, “whoa, what are you doing?”
He told me that he couldn’t help it. He was a pretty quiet guy, so he didn’t say anything else. I was burning with embarrassment and confusion. We never talked about it again. Soon, he started coming to the house to drop me off and that’s when the sex started. Go ahead and make assumptions and victim-blaming judgments, but I tried to tell him to stop and he just kept going. I began to hate him. I wanted to tell someone, and right when I started to get the strength to say something everyone found out anyways.
No One Would Believe Me
At one point, the other GySgt’s found out. We had a shop function, a fundraiser, and I had no money for a T-shirt so he pulled out his wallet in front of the whole platoon and paid for mine. Everyone saw it, and at that moment, they all knew.
His peers pulled me aside that day and told me that because of my reputation that no one would believe me if I turned him in. They informed me that he is their brother and that they would support him first. I was speechless and too young to know how severely unethical their comments were.
At one point, when I tried to break it off with him, our whole platoon was punished during a PT session. Afterward, he walked by me and whispered that it was my fault that everyone had to go through that. Luckily, I got orders to go away, but since my platoon resented me and assumed I got “special” favors from my GySgt (if you want to define “special favors” as being forced, manipulated, and violated then I guess I did) my “going away” was pretty much a roast that I had to sit through.
When I checked into my new command my reputation pretty much came sealed with my orders. I could never get ahead in the Marine Corps because I was labeled so early on in my career. This situation is not uncommon.
I never found out, nor did I ask, what happened to that Gunny. I know a few of his other Gunny friends were accused of similar behavior with some of the same young women from my old command; the young women were all junior ranking Marines as well. I think men like that band together and cover up for each other’s behavior and unless we start providing better resources for victims and better education in boot camp regarding sexism and harassment, we won’t see much change. I took the brunt end of the judgment and the punishment, while leaders protected one another. It took me almost ten years to even REALIZE that this situation was highly inappropriate because it happened at several commands to both me and other women I have served with.
Fast forward to almost twelve years later and I am in therapy for MST. I recently revealed my more severe incident to my counselor. The above incident is easier for me to talk about, but not this one. Let’s just point out the fact that sexual assault is more likely to be carried out by people you know, not a random person in a dark alley. My perpetrator was a friend, a fellow Marine, someone I cared about and it took me years to even admit that it was sexual assault.
My counselor at the VA told me that I may suffer from some symptoms of anxiety and depression after I spoke with her about it. Well, it’s been a week and I can say that I have burned bridges, felt severe panic attacks, suffered from paranoia, and had some pretty vivid dreams.
Understanding how MST affects service members is important. The trauma is always there, part of our bones and scars on our hearts. I think more of us need to come together and share our stories if it helps us heal and if we are ready. If you are ready and need an outlet, I can help you share your story even if you want to remain anonymous. You are not alone.