“At his hands, I experienced military sexual trauma that was disguised as romance. First, he made me feel safe, then he made me feel important, and then he made me feel hopeless,” writes Andrea Rathbun. Photo by Paola Chaaya, courtesy of Upsplash.com

He Used a Position of Power, In a Time of War, to Get What He Wanted. 

I am the worst person ever. I am THE WORST person ever. I AM the worst person EVER. I AM THE WORST PERSON EVER. i am the worst person ever.

I lived with these thoughts for a long time, and my family lived with me living with these thoughts. They raced through my head as I took my girls to school, as I hugged my husband goodbye, as I sat not watching a movie during family movie night. Mostly they pushed me as I cleaned, cooked, worked, praised, gave, and gave, and then gave again. But it was the other times that kept the thoughts going.

For 15 years, Andrea Rathbun struggled with thoughts that she was the “worst person ever.” With the help of therapy, she understood that she was a survivor of military sexual trauma. Photo courtesy of the author.

For 15 years, Andrea Rathbun struggled with thoughts that she was the “worst person ever.” With the help of therapy, she understood that she was a survivor of military sexual trauma. Photo courtesy of the author.

The other times usually started with a beer—well, not a beer; a beer started dancing in the kitchen and holding onto my dog’s front paws. Laughing and singing with my daughters. The other times started around four beers that tumbled into nine beers that led to days of me thinking and my family hurting.

The first time these thoughts became words I was hungover, my head aching, my eyes swollen, my husband pleading. I sat curled into a ball and said, “My brain won’t stop telling me that I am the worst person ever.” He asked why, and I didn’t know.

I deployed to Iraq when I was 20. I was an E-4 in the Army, a specialist. I was a kid. I was there to be a badass, to win the war, to serve my country, to run into battle and drag others out.

Combat looked a lot different than I imagined. There were fewer gunfights and more convoys. Less counting our victories and more delivering fuel. And there was him. He was 29, an E-6 in the Army, a staff sergeant. He was an adult. And he was married.

I trusted him.

At his hands, I experienced military sexual trauma that was disguised as romance. First, he made me feel safe, then he made me feel important, and then he made me feel hopeless. He made me everything he needed me to be so he could do whatever he wanted to me. I was irresistible, so he did not have to resist me; I was mature, so he could do things to me I was in no way ready for; I was responsible for his actions, so he was not responsible for them.

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Over the course of the 12-month deployment, I would try to stop, plead to stop, demand to stop. Each time I said no more, he fought back. There was the time he would not allow me out of my vehicle before a five-hour convoy to get food and water. During another long convoy, this one lasting eight hours, he would not let me pee. My legs were shaking, my stomach cramping. The shame was so tangled up. Shame that I would not be able to hold on much longer, shame at letting my body experience this, shame that it was all my fault. Shame that I deserved it.

Andrea Rathbun joined the Army at 20. “I was a kid. I was there to be a badass, to win the war, to serve my country, to run into battle and drag others out,” she writes. Photo courtesy of the author.

Andrea Rathbun joined the Army at 20. “I was a kid. I was there to be a badass, to win the war, to serve my country, to run into battle and drag others out,” she writes. Photo courtesy of the author.

And then there was one of the scariest moments of my deployment. I returned to my room after midnight chow and found it trashed. My locker empty, my belongings thrown all over the place, my bed stripped, a favorite blanket gone. This was real. This was not something I could explain away; this was a deliberate act of violence.

So why not tell? I had proof, evidence of the escalating scale of his repercussions. Why not tell? The answer: There was no one to tell, because everyone knew.

Our commander knew, my squad leader knew, my gunner knew. Everyone knew. Everyone knew that I was an attractive young female who seduced a married man and was getting what I deserved. Everyone knew that he was in love with me, willing to break up his family, and I was breaking his heart. Everyone knew that I was the worst person ever.

I didn’t know. I didn’t know that it wouldn’t stop. He knew. He once told me with pride in his voice, “I’ve probably ruined you in ways that no one else ever will. I’ve hurt you more than anyone can.”

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I didn’t know. And I wouldn’t know for the next 15 years. I wouldn’t know that this is when I lost my sense of service. I wouldn’t know that there was a reason I couldn’t stand to be alone in a room with a man. I wouldn’t know why it hurt to hold my daughters or to have my husband hold me. I wouldn’t know why I was the worst person ever.

 “At his hands, I experienced military sexual trauma that was disguised as romance. First, he made me feel safe, then he made me feel important, and then he made me feel hopeless,” writes Andrea Rathbun. Photo by Paola Chaaya, courtesy of Upsplash.com

“At his hands, I experienced military sexual trauma that was disguised as romance. First, he made me feel safe, then he made me feel important, and then he made me feel hopeless,” writes Andrea Rathbun. Photo by Paola Chaaya, courtesy of Upsplash.com

My wonderful therapist taught me many things. Chief among them, and I quote, “You are not a walking vagina.” I also learned that my husband, an active-duty service member, is a military spouse too. These were life-changing revelations.

She would also help me know.

At the beginning of therapy, I was asked to write about the traumatic experience that was impacting me.

I brought a long list to the next session, a very well-written explanation of my childhood, my first boyfriend, the death of my grandfather. They were all true, they all happened. But they weren’t what made me the worst person ever.

We started poking around inside my mind, around the thoughts, to see what hurt. Like a tongue looking for a sore tooth. The Army hurt. Being a veteran who was not proud of their service hurt. Not being able to build connections with friends and family hurt. Not being able to want anything good for myself hurt.

Andrea Rathbun spends time with family, including her husband, an active duty service member. Photo courtesy of the author.

Andrea Rathbun spends time with family, including her husband, an active duty service member. Photo courtesy of the author.

I looked him up once, years after leaving the military. I searched through name after name and couldn’t find the right one.

I told my therapist about him. About the day I found out he was married. It was before everything. He was flirting and I was uncomfortable. I asked the question and was so relieved by the answer. He was harmless.

I told her about the first time he invited me to watch a movie in his room. I recalled how I cried, as I explained to my roommate that I did not want to go.

I told her about the feelings. About him loving me, about me hurting him.

I told her that I was the worst person ever.

“What did you do wrong?” she asked.

My answer started out as “I.” I had a relationship with a married man. She pushed me and I got to “we.” We broke up a marriage. She dragged me as I reached for “he.” He.

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He used a position of power, during a time of war, to get what he wanted.

And then I knew.

I knew that trusting him was not a choice. I was trained to trust him. I knew that the 20-year-old me was not irresistible, mature, or responsible. I knew that abuse is not romance. And I knew that I was not the worst person ever.

That day I picked my daughters up from school, hugged my husband hello, and watched The Emperor’s New Groove, sipping bubbly water and laughing my head off.

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Andrea Renee Sandoval Rathbun

Andrea Rathbun is a disabled combat veteran and an active-duty military spouse. She resides outside of Fort Polk, Louisiana, by way of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has two daughters who are full of stories and a husband with a gift for listening. She sometimes gets it wrong but always finds a way to write.

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