It took a decade for the author to talk about what happened to her while deployed. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

He Spent Years Learning Other People’s Secret Pains. I Spent Years Hiding Mine.

My husband’s phone rang on our way to get ice cream, and my heart sank just as the baby in my belly kicked. I rubbed and patted the bump, soothing away her restlessness and my immediate need for butter pecan.

“So, she woke up with his fingers inside her?” he said, swerving into a parking lot. I could easily guess the other end of the conversation, and my thighs clenched involuntarily, resisting a memory.

A few months prior, my husband had returned from deployment, and his unit was adjusting to being back. This is always a horrible time for anyone with any authority. Soldiers are happy to be home and they show it by drinking too much, making bad choices, hitting their spouses, and fingering the drunk girl who used to be their gunner.

A helmet on display represents a reported sexual assault as part of a silent walk during an observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month at Kunsan Air Base, Korea. Photo by Senior Airman Katrina Heikkinen, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

A helmet on display represents a reported sexual assault as part of a silent walk during an observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month at Kunsan Air Base, Korea. Photo by Senior Airman Katrina Heikkinen, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

I don’t know why this was always the worst part for me. The fingers. I could block out bodies and mouths and even dicks, but with fingers, I can still feel every groove and knuckle. I hate the sound of nails on skin and will punch anyone who tickles me. Watching other people tickle my daughters makes me feel strong enough to lift a car and then throw it at their faces.

He nodded his head. “She was all over him during deployment. She went to his house for the party, right?” The unsaid: Maybe it was her fault.

And I heard it. The moment. The moment this woman, this victim, this girl became a problem to solve instead of a person to help.

My hearing became fuzzy, and I wasn’t in the truck anymore. In my mind, I was laying on my back, fist clenched, chanting cadence in my head to the rhythm of his movements, Rollin, rollin, rollin, oh my back is swollen.

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My body pulled back, shifting, resisting as one fingertip became two and two knuckles became four.

“Oh, you like that? Right there?” he said, forcing me back into the moment.

Members of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team and the 101st Intelligence Squadron volunteer their time to arrange flags to promote Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Photo by Airman Francesca Skridulis, courtesy of the Air National Guard.

Members of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team and the 101st Intelligence Squadron volunteer their time to arrange flags to promote Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Photo by Airman Francesca Skridulis, courtesy of the Air National Guard.

Hours before I had driven this man through the streets of Iraq, sitting upright and fully clothed. Not just clothed but armored. He commanded left turns and warned of danger, he laughed and sang songs with my gunner. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe,” he told me at the beginning of every mission.

I was never safe.

My husband hung up the phone and his words took on new life in my head, reaffirming my worst thoughts. You were all over him during deployment. You went to his room, right? Maybe it was your fault.

We did eventually get the ice cream, but it melted down my arm and onto the truck seat as we drove home.

E.V.’s husband spent years serving military sexual trauma victims, unaware that she, too, was one. Photo courtesy of Upslash.

E.V.’s husband spent years serving military sexual trauma victims, unaware that she, too, was one. Photo courtesy of Upslash.

It would be nine years before I told him my story. During this time, he would become a Criminal Investigation Division agent and dedicate his life to serving military sexual trauma victims. He would grow from a problem solver to a person helper, listening to each story with certainty, working to remove every maybe. I watched and listened with compassion, curiosity, and a sickening sense of jealousy as he supported and comforted one woman after another.

Our life followed a predictably unpredictable course as his career grew. We had two hilarious daughters and moved across the country multiple times while I finished two degrees and worked my way through many horrible jobs to one that I loved. I also developed a drinking problem to help combat the memories and nightmares.

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This drinking problem forced our marriage to almost breaking and pushed me into therapy.

It took months of weekly, hour-long conversations before I mentioned to my therapist, with five minutes left, that I had experienced military sexual trauma.

A pile of teal ribbon pins sits on a table at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Airmen at Altus were encouraged to wear the teal ribbon on their lapel every Tuesday during the month of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Photo by Airman 1st Class Kari Degraffenreed, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

A pile of teal ribbon pins sits on a table at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Airmen at Altus were encouraged to wear the teal ribbon on their lapel every Tuesday during the month of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Photo by Airman 1st Class Kari Degraffenreed, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

I rushed through my explanation without taking a breath. “He was in charge of me, older than me by 10 years, and married, but maybe I wanted it. Every time I was alone with him, I cringed and felt disgusting, but maybe that was just excitement. I tried many, many times to get him to stop, but maybe I just liked being chased. Maybe we can talk more about this next week.”

I almost skipped the next session. It was too much, knowing I would be made to defend, to measure, to quantify why it was trauma, why I had let it happen, why I thought it mattered.

“Let’s revisit where we left off,” my therapist began.

She didn’t ask for details. She didn’t make me justify my actions. She wanted to know about my feelings, the changes in my behavior, the changes in my thoughts.

“So, what I am hearing is, a man, in a position of power, made you feel highly uncomfortable and used his power to force you into a sexual relationship you did not want. He used grooming, fear, repercussions, and the overall threat of war. What an asshole,” she stated, summing up our exchange.

I think it was the “what an asshole” that broke through. If someone else could be angry on my behalf, surely, maybe, it wasn’t my fault.

It took a decade for the author to talk about what happened to her while deployed. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

It took a decade for the author to talk about what happened to her while deployed. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

On therapy days, my husband brought pizza home. Partly to ease my schedule but also to help soothe the frayed edges the sessions always left. I truly believe pizza is a perfect food and will fight anyone who tells me pineapple does not belong on it.

That night we sat on the couch with paper plates in our laps watching our daughter dance across the living room and trying to see the TV behind her.

“After the girls go to bed, I want to talk to you,” I told him, preparing us both.

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Later we would crawl into bed, and in the dark, beneath covers, my whole body wrapped around a pillow, I told him my story. It was still a jumble, me working through the issues of fault, trust, and responsibility. He listened in the stillness, guiding and comforting me with understanding. He had spent years learning other people’s secret pains while I spent years hiding mine.

There would be more for him to know and more for me to tell, but there was time, and I was safe.

He reached for me in the blackness, sliding his fingers into mine, and we wept.


This War Horse reflection was written by E.V., edited by Kristin Davis, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.

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E.V.

E.V. is a pseudonym for a combat veteran and military spouse. She lives with her family in the southeastern U.S.

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