Me, Also. A Cobra Pilot’s Story of Military Sexual Assault
It’s okay. I’ve had a vasectomy.
My flight instructor pants these words into my face as he shoves my Dress Blue Alpha skirt over my hips. He yanks off my pantyhose. His uniform shirt is halfway unbuttoned; he’s already naked from the waist down. He straddles me on the hotel bed, pushing my shoulders back into a pillow. I’m too wasted to force him off, not like I’d have the strength to overcome him sober, and it doesn’t matter; I’m frozen in shock and fear and confusion. My lips can’t even form the word “no.” This shouldn’t be happening. These things don’t happen to someone like me. Time slows as he helps himself to every part of me. To my horror and disgust, my numb-drunk body responds to his every move.
That California night in 2009 was supposed to be a celebration of all the best parts of being a leatherneck—our history, our traditions, our sterling reputation—during the annual Marine Corps Ball. I looked up to him: a Marine Captain, a Cobra pilot who had deployed to Afghanistan and come back full of war stories. I soaked up his advice like a rapt kindergartener. The two cranberry vodkas he bought and handed to me minutes before last call were, I thought, a sign of acceptance into this selective gun club. After nearly failing out of flight school 18 months prior, I had finally made it. I was five flights away from joining my fleet squadron and two months from deploying to fight the war on terror as a combat-ready AH-1W attack helicopter pilot. I was elated, relieved, invincible. He was married and had a daughter.
It was my fault, I tell myself. I shouldn’t have gone to the ball. I shouldn’t have been drinking. I shouldn’t have been wearing a skirt. I’m scared shitless I’ll be charged with adultery. I won’t tell anyone, I promise. I hobble to my car the next morning in a haze, too sore to walk properly. I park outside a Walgreens and wait. For courage. For insight. For truth. But I do not go in and buy a morning-after pill. I still trust him somehow. When my next period arrives, the fear of scheduling an abortion vanishes. I sleep deeply for the first time in weeks.
I don my Type A personality like I’m strapping a Cobra to my back and shove my sensitive Type B core into remission. It’s called compartmentalizing. I say nothing; it’s like it never happened. I don’t want to be that female student who accuses a senior instructor pilot of a crime he’s likely to deny. I don’t want the stigma, the shame, the burden of judgment. I don’t want to put my career on hold, the career I’ve been working so hard to start since that fateful September day in 2001 when I watched the Twin Towers crumple into ash as a high school senior. The sexual assault surveys are mandatory. I take them, but it’s easy to ignore the truth. Technically, I’m not even lying; the questions usually come with a time restriction. “In the last month, have you ever been…” Nope.
Squadron life consumes my days even as flashbacks plague my sleep. Get over it. Nothing happened. I claw my way through the attack helicopter commander syllabus and volunteer to deploy for six months to Helmand Province. Turns out, I love war. I return stateside, quickly realize I’m not the squadron’s priority, and deploy back to the desert 10 months after leaving it. I would have happily wallowed in the comfort of denial forever had a British naval officer not shown up as the new guy in the same plywood office as me three months into my tour. We work well together. He invites me out for coffee. We sit in the boiling heat on wooden benches in a combat zone in one of the most dangerous countries on Earth and talk until the orange sun dips below the horizon. I dare to hope.
Ten weeks spent together on Camp Leatherneck and it’s my turn to redeploy home. I’ve Skyped with his parents in England. We’re officially dating now. As we’re both stubborn, we decide to dive into the long-distance thing. As I sit on the wooden floor of my new rental in North Carolina, freshly returned from combat, I realize I want a clean slate. I need to purge the skeletons from my closet. He needs to know my history, and my burdens, to see me fully. I compose a long email and hit send.
After a Christmas visit to England, we’re engaged. I’m in shock and love. My life is a fairy tale, except the dark bits still linger in the corners. I change commands. I switch jobs. I report to a new commanding officer. And I speak to the unit’s sexual assault response coordinator, a woman well-versed in leading Marines from denial to action. I file a restricted report, then walk two blocks to the law center and speak to my victim’s legal counsel—my lawyer. I file an unrestricted report less than a month later.
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I talk to Naval Criminal Investigative Service and type an email to my flight instructor. The goal is to get him to write back, say something damning. I haven’t corresponded with him in years. The agent checks my message and approves it. A feeling of betrayal washes over me when I’m done.
I start therapy or counseling or healing or whatever it’s called this month, and see a woman once a week I don’t fully trust who provokes me into fits of angry sobbing while I’m still wearing my uniform. I start trail-running at lunch. I attend evening meditation sessions at a yuppie yoga studio when I feel strong. My lawyer tasks me with writing out what happened for legal purposes. My hands shake as I type. It takes me weeks. She reads silently, then asks, “Did you invite him into the room, or did he just walk in? Did you ask him to buy you drinks, or did he hand them to you?” Holy shit. My perspective explodes. I now see how much blame I’ve been assigning myself all these years. She asks for a rewrite. I feel giddy when I finish the second draft.
At night, I’m an indignant monster. The injustice burns my soul. I pace my quiet neighborhood, barefoot in the summer heat, cry-raging into headphones blasting classical music through my brain. I swig a bottle of beer and ask the questions I should have voiced years ago—to myself, to him, to the starless sky—and decide I want to go to court. Let’s face my demons. Here we go, motherfucker, time to fry. I confide in my lawyer, but I’m too late. Not a single annual training session, online course, or legal brief ever talked about the statute of limitations in the Manual for Courts Martial. My time has just lapsed. Sexual assault charges are off the table—the only route left is the rape charge. I steel myself for the legal battle.
Complications arise from the start. He’s since retired, receiving a paycheck every month for his honorable service. I only have a year left on active duty. NCIS is short-staffed and overworked. It takes months for my agent to make any headway, or even visit the crime scene. I provide statements in a room meant for interrogations, the bare lightbulb and peeling paint laughably stark and uninviting. My lawyer says we’re fighting an uphill battle; we need hard evidence and have nothing but a few emails and my drunken memories. A year into my fight for justice, my lawyer is replaced by a new guy, the senior Judge Advocate General colonel out west retires, and I move across the ocean to prepare for my British wedding. My legal package winds up lost in the Pentagon on its way to a high-level review. They mysteriously find it weeks later. My only reaction is to laugh at this comedy of errors.
My trust in the system that’s supposed to protect me finally vanishes when, seven years after my life changed, I receive a scanned copy of a curt memo from the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. “The evidence in this case does not rise to the probable cause standard necessary to support the preferral of a charge of rape.” There is no appeals process.
Ten months later, I find myself in London nervously sitting in the waiting room of a VA-sponsored psychologist. After seeing two behavioral therapists and attending a group trauma session in the States, I’ve since completed two more rounds of therapy overseas. Yet again, I wrench open the darkness and vomit out my burning secret to a complete stranger. My hands shake, either from the two cups of coffee or nerves, I can’t tell. After an hour, I walk out the door, unsure of myself. A month later, the VA awards me 20% disability for having PTSD due to Military Sexual Trauma. I am simultaneously elated and depressed. I am officially a disabled veteran.
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I never received the courtroom justice I imagined. I never got to face my attacker again, stare him down while recounting every agonizing detail, watch the horror in his eyes as I testified. I am forever changed. But my experience has made me the person I am today. It led me to my wonderful husband. It ushered in a new career. And it gave me boundless strength once I fought my way through. If my story can give one person the courage to admit to themselves, their family, or their friends what has happened in their life, my pain will have been worth it.
My infant daughter turns one in a week. Love conquers rape. This is justice served.