JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii --
Editor’s note -- April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. As this year’s campaign kicks off, one Airman shares her story with the hopes of shedding light on the reality of sexual assault and the very real and lasting impact living with the violation can have on a victim’s life. While sharing her story, the Airman wished to remain anonymous.
“I was raped. I will never forget what that felt like. I was frozen with terror. I just laid there and tried to focus on a light on the wall until it was over.”
In March 2009, while in technical school at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, she took a weekend trip to San Antonio. This was nothing out of the ordinary, as her twin sister was stationed there, and this is how she said she typically spent the weekend. The plan was to stay at home, hang out and have drinks. The small group of familiar faces (her twin sister, her brother-in-law, her sister’s best friend and that friend’s husband) relaxed her enough to drink without her guard up.
As the night wore on, only she and her sister’s friend’s husband were alone -- something she was completely comfortable with given he was a close friend of the family. Sometime later after falling asleep, she awoke in a groggy state. She noted it was hard to breath and her chest felt heavy.
After coming to, she realized her drinking companion was now lying on top of her, kissing her neck. After realizing she was awake, while already trying to remove her pants, he casually asked her, “Not okay?”
She shook her head no and grabbed the waistband of her pants with both hands. But, he didn't stop. Ignoring her, he struggled against her to get her pants off. Continuing against her wishes, he then proceeded to penetrate her.
After having been in the Air Force less than two years, and not even making it to her first duty station, she found herself in what she thought was a perfectly safe environment being raped by a fellow Airman.
“A lot of people don’t understand the physiological reaction people’s body has to trauma,” she said. “Some people run, some people fight and some people freeze. I froze.”
Although she’d just lived through the worst moment of her life, the real nightmare -- being shamed, blamed and re-victimized -- came next. The next day, she tried to tell her twin sister about what had happened just steps away from where she slept. She didn’t believe her.
“He’s not that kind of guy,” she recalled her sister saying. “You must be confused about what happened.”
Desperately in need of support, she confided in her aunt. Her aunt blamed her. “What were you wearing? Were you just feeling sexy that night?” she said her aunt asked.
What’s worse, she said, her attacker continued to live his life as if he had not destroyed hers. Nothing changed for him, though because of a decision he’s made, her life would never be the same.
Having found no support in her family, she resigned herself to not reporting the rape, and living quietly with the violation. Soon, she could only find comfort at the bottom of a bottle. Her behavior turned to self-destruction and she attempted to drink away the memory of the assault.
Her instructors became worried. Her grades began to drop. Finally, months after her rape, she made a restricted report to the sexual assault response coordinator and sought help at the mental health office on base.
Eventually, she and her husband were able to move past the incident and continue on with life. But the ordeal wasn’t over. It was at her next duty station that her past came back to haunt her. After finding out the man who raped her would be moving to the same base, she was immediately faced with the horror of accidentally running into a person who made her tremble with fear and sick to her stomach.
A decision to seek help for an early PCS from her chain of command transported her back in time. Instead of moving forward from her rape, her restricted report was now unrestricted and she found herself an involuntary participant in a rape trial.
"The case ended up becoming unrestricted and by that time I had found out that I could have an attorney if I wished so I requested one,” she said. “I was assigned a special victim’s counsel and immediately asked that the investigation be stopped. I didn’t want the rapist to know that my family and I lived at the base. Unfortunately, the investigation was going to proceed with or without my cooperation, so I chose to cooperate.”
Thankfully she was assigned a SVC because according to her he turned out to be the single most helpful source of support for the process.
“From beginning to end, I had spoken to three different SARCs, had three different commanders (privy to the case), and four different therapists, but the single point of continuity I had was my SVC,” she said. “Not only did my SVC provide legal support, but he also provided emotional and moral support. I never had to go to any meetings or participate in any interviews without him present, even if I suggested his presence wasn’t necessary, he always made sure to be there.
“The most valuable way he helped was by being supportive when necessary, but always honest. Legally, the most significant thing he did was argue on my behalf when the perpetrator’s chain of command wanted the case dismissed. Without my SVC, my case would likely have been pushed to the side and disregarded. The entire process is incredibly dehumanizing; first, I was the rapist’s indulgence, then I was a victim and survivor, then I was a witness, then I became a case number. But to my SVC, I wasn’t just a number; I was his client. He recognized me as someone’s wife, someone’s sister, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter."
The trial, riddled with victim blaming, lasted for months.
“Why didn’t you report it sooner,” she was asked. “Why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you scream for help? Why didn’t you run? Why were you alone with him?” The trial, she admits, was nearly as unbearable as the rape. “Five years had passed and I had never really talked about it,” she said. “So now I have to go, sit in this little room and re-live the worst experience of my life. I don’t understand why so much focus was placed on not verbally saying no. I fought to keep my pants on. I didn’t verbally say no, but he very much understood I was saying no.
“I wasn’t incapacitated during the rape--I was terrified. I was afraid. This man was twice my size. I knew once I shook my head no, grabbed my pants to keep them on and he continued to take my pants down, pushed my hand off my pants and forced me to touch his penis, there was going to be nothing I could do to stop what was coming next. The point isn’t when did I say no, it’s when did I say yes? You should never just assume the answer to anything is yes without asking.”
After nearly five hours of deliberation, the panel came back with the verdict. He was acquitted.
“Initially, I was defeated,” she said. “After all this time … for him to be acquitted. I’d spent a lot of time mentally preparing myself for the verdict though, because I knew what the statistics were. Somehow I fully believed that if I told the unembellished truth this group of people would go into a room and decide it was rape. That didn’t happen.”
While she is definitely not pleased with the outcome of her case, she admits that she still has faith in the judicial system and notes that her case highlights a bigger cultural issue.
“The real tragedy here is our culture and how society views and defines rape,” she said. “I’d argue that his penis, a foreign object, entering my body against my will is definitely violent. That is a pain that I will never forget.”
Additionally, she notes it’s important for people to understand how traumatic it is for the victim to be blamed, and how little control they actually have over the situation.
“In my mind, I’d done everything right to put myself in a safe environment to drink,” she said. “I was at my sister’s house. I was hanging out with a friend. I was hanging out with someone’s husband. I never expected it to happen in those circumstances.”
Post-trial, reflecting over the entire ordeal, she admits that had she not been forced into the trial, she likely never would have made an unrestricted report. She never would have sought justice from her attacker.
“After the trial, after I’d worked through the grief process, I realized I never had any intention of reporting it,” she said. “I thought if my own twin sister--my own family didn’t believe me, who would ever believe me. Going through the process was horrible and put me and my family in a world of turmoil. I thought it would tear us apart.”
She advises victims who have not spoken up or are undecided on whether or not to tell anyone that “struggling alone is the worst thing you can do. People can hit the self-destruct button and not even realize it.” She recommends reporting an assault to the SAPR office even if they don’t want to go through the entire trial process.
“Without the SAPR office, I would have been completely alone at times,” she said. “Even if you make a restricted report, you need to report it. You need a safe place to leave that so you’re not carrying it around with you forever.”
Lastly, she cautions any would-be supporter against accidentally casting judgment or siding with an accused attacker because they never know the lasting damage it could do to a victim.
“If I could go back in time I would tell my sister that it wasn’t her job to decide who was telling the truth. That’s what the investigation was for,” she said. “It was her job to support me and that’s it.”
To victims and survivors she says: “Some people will believe you, and some people will blame you, but you don’t owe anyone an explanation for what someone else did to you. I’ve had to tell myself that over and over.”
Nearly six years later, the Airman continues to put her life back together. She shares her story to empower other survivors to come forward. Though the process wasn’t perfect and even the outcome wasn’t favorable, she faced her attacker head on and now has all the support she needs to move forward. She didn’t self-destruct and she didn’t let the ordeal define her.
Sexual Assault and Prevention Response offices around Pacific Air Forces will be hosting informational events throughout the month of April. For more information or to report a sexual assault, contact your local SAPR office.
For local SAPR programs, visit our Contact Page and click the arrow next to SAPR Programs.