Reliving Military Sexual Trauma on Her Last Day of Active Duty
It was the last thing I had to do. The final official order of business before I could wash my hands of the whole filthy event. This was not where I wanted to spend this particular morning, confessing my deepest secrets to a stranger, but there we were. Winona and I introduced ourselves to the agent, then sank into the deep, leather chairs across from his desk. The chairs seemed better suited for a comfy New England library than the office of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service aboard Parris Island, S.C.
“I understand that you’re here to discuss a sexual assault, Chief Warrant Officer?” the NCIS agent began.
“No, sir. I’m here because my commanding officer insisted I make this appointment.” I’d made up my mind not to give the name of the Marine captain who had taken it too far on not just one, but three occasions.
“Well, your CO was right; you don’t need to protect him. He can’t do anything to you now. You know that, right?” he pressed.
How could I explain to the agent that I wasn’t afraid of the man? It wasn’t fear of him that kept me from reporting the assault; it was fear of the fallout. I was sure, if I wanted to, I could destroy this officer’s personal life and career, but the cost to me would be unbearable. I’d witnessed it too many times with female friends and colleagues: the dismissal, public shame, and retaliation that often befell women who “cried rape.” I’d experienced it myself early in my career. No, I wasn’t being quiet because I was afraid; at my rank, reporting the assault wouldn’t end well for me.
I focused on the matter at hand, took a measured breath, and explained how my CO, XO, sergeant major, and I were discussing the handling of an alleged sexual assault in our command. I had a feeling the CO wasn’t aware of how frequent sexual assaults were in the ranks of the Marine Corps, so I casually had mentioned that I had been sexually assaulted a couple of years prior by a captain I worked with. Maybe it was because the XO and sergeant major were also women that I felt comfortable revealing this with them, or maybe it was because they’d all worked with pilots themselves. They’d seen these men chase their vices first hand.
I was trying to relate to the accuser, a young woman I’d worked with before. I wanted to show the CO, the only man in the room, that it was more common than he probably understood. I joked, “Who hasn’t been sexually assaulted?” But the commander didn’t get my gallows humor, and upon realizing that he was now the senior person with my secret, he made the appointment for me, for no other reason than to cover his ass. “He could give two shits about me personally,” I remarked.
I went on to explain how the executive officer had gotten upset by my story and left the office while the SgtMaj nodded, understanding it were entirely plausible. They both knew I was telling the truth. The XO later admitted in private that practically the same thing had happened to her on deployment.
“It’s a part of their playbook: Break in and pass around the new girl,” I added with a smile, forever trying to lighten the mood. I sank further into the leather chair as the agent gave me a frustrated look, failing to see what was funny about not reporting an assault. I knew he was just trying to do his job; playing coy was pointless. “The damage is done. He’s probably forgotten about the whole thing. He’d be stunned by an investigation, I’m sure. His version of events and mine are probably very different. I’m sure he believes I wanted it all; he’d say I’d consented. Besides, he’s moved up and will probably be a CO soon himself. Pilots are untouchable.”
“Will you tell me what happened?” the agent asked. “Off the record?”
I knew there was no such thing, but I indulged him: “A few months after I checked into my squadron over on the Air Station, we deployed to Japan. One night after ‘mandatory fun’ at the Officers Club, the captain knocked on my barracks room door and pushed his way inside. I put up a pretty good argument and made enough noise that the major, who lived next door, came over and pulled him out of my room.”
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Sitting in that room, I thought about Marc, my boyfriend at the time. He had never trusted these guys around me, and it was a source of constant strain in our relationship. Trying not to give anyone the impression I was available, I had spoken about Marc constantly, avoided giving any kind of flirty impressions, and dodged the drunken nights at the O-club. That was until the major I reported to, had pulled me aside and scolded me for not acting like one of the boys. He’d explained, when the boss says, I’ll see you at the officers club on Friday evenings; it wasn’t optional. He made it clear that I’d attend future events.
Explaining this to Marc had caused an argument that, as I sat in the agent’s office, I began replaying inside my head.
“So, there’s a witness?” the agent asked, interrupting my daydream.
“Well, to the first one, I guess. Although you’d never get that major to testify against one of his own.” The very idea was absurd. “Six months later we deployed to Twentynine Palms. The same captain managed to get me away from the group one night and forced my hand down his pants. He wanted me to jerk him off, but I threatened to yell and was drawing attention, so he gave up. A week later, all the officers went to Palm Springs for a night, and he just wouldn’t leave me alone.” I shook my head and fought the memory I was exhuming. Grief threatened to overwhelm me as I sorted through the events that had led to that night, and how Marc eventually had ended our relationship when it became too much for him.
Winona reached over and put her hand on top of mine. She always knew when I needed a pull back from the edge.
“I gave in,” I confessed, wanting to hurry the conversation to its end. I looked the agent in the eye. “He was never going to stop. The only way to get him to leave me alone was to fuck him and get it over with.” I paused and absorbed the sting of the bandage I’d just ripped off. “I’ve endured worse.”
I knew that if I refused to tell the agent the captain’s name I’d be able to leave the office without being roped into an investigation. I just had to get through this fucking appointment. Then I could go.
I looked at Winona sitting next to me. My best friend of over 20 years had driven from Virginia for my big day and was willing to take the bad with the good. I must have thanked her half a dozen times for going to the appointment with me. It was as hard for her as it was for me; holding a secret the both of us kept from my daughters, but Winona and I had plenty of secrets.
I leveled with the guy, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I know it’s frustrating when female Marines don’t report sexual assaults, but you have to believe me that it’ll only make things worse if I do. Most of the officers on the Air Station just want to see me go, especially my CO… Starting a new investigation right now would accomplish nothing; it would drag me, my daughters, the captain’s wife, and his children through the ringer, and for what? He would be painted the victim, and I’d be painted a slut… again. I’m not doing it. I just want this to end.”
The agent tried guilt. “If you don’t report it, he’ll do it again.”
I tilted my head and smiled. This guy looked about my age. He was probably a Marine veteran himself; there was no use in bullshitting him. “I already know another woman he’s assaulted. He’s a privileged, white, frat boy, a fighter pilot who’s never been told ‘no’ a day in his life. Of course he’ll do it again. And if another woman ever asks me to testify, I’ll gladly do it, but for now I just want out.”
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The agent relented, “I understand. If you change your mind…” he handed over his business card.
As Winona and I walked to my car I looked across the wide Harbor River that separates Parris Island from Port Royal, SC. This stretch of water held a thousand secrets, and I’d just added another. I said to Winona, “That agent would have shit his pants if I told him about that rape when I was a Lance Corporal.” I gave a snort at my joke as we began the short drive to the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion. The Parris Island Band was setting up for my retirement ceremony.