I hear this phrase from numerous people. The first time I heard it, I felt ashamed, defeated, and dishonest. I couldn’t make sense of the words. What service were they thanking me for? I didn’t understand because I felt like my military experience was fake and dishonorable.
Every veteran has a story, and better yet, a voice.
I joined the military to escape my civilian life at the age of 19 on Thanksgiving of 2005. I was shipped out to Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri, on January 4, 2006. This was my new home for the next five months—five months that would change the way I thought about the military.
Near the end of Basic Training (BCT), I was approached by my drill sergeant who asked if I wanted a cigarette. As a private with a nicotine fix, I jumped at the opportunity and followed him to the basement to share and sneak a cigarette. I trusted my drill sergeant, but this was the beginning of what I call the trail of mistakes because one day my whole world turned.
As I sat and smoked with him one evening, enjoying the amazing taste of Marlboro lights and soaking in an ounce of freedom for one minute, he grabbed me and sat me on his lap. He began touching me. At that moment several emotions—both good and bad—ran through my head. I liked the attention of someone being attracted to me, but I felt like his behavior was crossing a boundary I hadn’t established. I blamed myself for walking down to the basement that night. I’d let him lure me in with nicotine, and soon after it became alcohol. I was now 20 years old and still underage for drinking, but he made a pact with me: If I would hang out with him, he would give me alcohol. So I did.
At the time, I blamed myself for being so naive and stupid. And I knew he was taking advantage of other women under his command. I will never forget the day he gave me alcohol and made me drive while he and my battle buddy—another female solider—messed around in the back of his maroon jeep.
The day finally came when I graduated BCT, and I was off to my job training for the military at Advanced Individual Training school. But instead of moving to another base, my school was on the same military base as my BCT. This meant that my former drill sergeant knew when I got weekend breaks to go off base. So he would wait for me around the corner from my barracks where taxis usually picked up soldiers on their way to weekends off post. So instead of hanging out with my fellow soldiers, I would hop into his jeep and he’d drive me to remote training sites on base. He’d hand me a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of Southern Comfort and tell me to drink. He would prey on my drinking and strike when I became intoxicated.
It got to the point where he told me not to tell anyone what was going on, or he would kill me.
This threw me for a loop, so I started avoiding him. Of course I wasn’t going to tell anyone; I was deathly afraid of him. He was the scariest drill sergeant. So I kept this secret from all my military family until eventually my secret caught up with me when I was in Airborne school in the heat of the summer at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I was approached by the commander. He said I needed to pack my stuff. He made a few phone calls and suddenly I was on the next flight to Missouri. I didn’t know why until I got to Missouri when I was then approached by the battalion commander. He screamed at me, saying he knew I was lying about what had taken place. Unable to keep it in any longer, I shared everything that ever went on between me and my predator. Now that the truth was free, my drill sergeant was arrested, prosecuted, and eventually sent to prison.
Fast forward to my duty station where my new home would be for the next 1.5 years. My superiors selected me and another female to be the first females in an all-male combat unit in the 2/319th 82nd ABN division. At first my new battle buddy and I thought it was great because there would be no drama with other females. But many of the male soldiers started to treat us as if we were foreigners, objects, prisoners—as if we were their “property.” As they got to know us, they found our weaknesses, and they found it was easy to get their way with us if they fed us enough alcohol. There were times when my battle buddy and I woke up not knowing where we were, or how we got there, even though sometimes we could have sworn we only drank one alcoholic beverage. We never told anyone about these encounters because we thought we were just making new friends and being a part of our unit. We were beginning to “fit in” and “bond” with our family/friends. We didn’t know about their schemes for how the next male soldier was going to get what he wanted. They would hand us off, as if we were batons in a race.
Years later I would tell some of this to my counselor, or draw it out in Art therapy, but at the time I thought this was somehow my fault, that this was normal military behavior. I started to degrade myself and believe some of what the males were telling me. I was ashamed and started feeling depressed. I was even beginning to think I didn’t deserve to even breathe.
These episodes and real life nightmares happened every weekend, and I finally ended up in the hospital, stressed and strung out with physical pain and depression. For the pain, I was introduced to Percocet, which became my new best friend and outlet. I could swallow it, or to get a quicker effect I could even chew it or snort it. It was there for me when I was alone and depressed. In addition to Percocet, I would sometimes ask my male friends—my so-called friends—to bring me alcohol. They would of course bring me the alcohol and say that they would stay to “take care of me.” But they were only doing this to take advantage of my weakened situation. I began to dig a deep dark hole and climb into it.
Time went on and I was scheduled for my first jump in the 82nd ABN division on August 16, 2006. The jump was at 2 a.m. and I was the “last man” out of that C17 plane. My turn came and I jumped. I couldn’t see anything except for one soldier who had parachuted before me. He ended up sky-sharking me in mid-air, meaning he ran into me mid-flight. And because other soldiers had jumped right before me, they ended up right underneath me, unintentionally blocking the air needed to fill my parachute which caused me to fall fast and hard. A tree, luckily, broke my fall, but I ended up shattering my ankle as I landed in a ditch. I remember laying there for a long time in the early morning darkness, screaming in pain for help. When I heard someone walking through the bushes, I thought I’d be rescued. But all this solider did was give me a chem light—a type of glow stick used in the military. Mind you, he was also a Medic, but all he did was hand me a damn chem light at 2 o’clock in the freakin’ morning. He told me to raise my arm in the air, be quiet, and wait. So that’s what I did. I held the chem light above my head until I started to go into shock. No one found me on the drop zone until an hour and 45 minutes later. Getting to the hospital, pale as a ghost, feeling as if my ankle had fallen off, I was injected a few times with morphine. The next day, the doctors had to re-break my ankle to prepare it for surgery. After the surgery, I stayed in the hospital one week, and during my recovery I quickly became addicted to Dilaudid and Morphine. A month later, I’d received no physical therapy because my unit looked down on soldiers who went to doctors’ appointments. So instead I quietly met with the doctor in my unit, during work hours, and he prescribed me a 90-day supply of Percocet every month for 3 months. Once again Percocet was my best friend and like before I would swallow, chew, or snort it, but this time combining it with alcohol.
Time came when the 82nd needed to be ready to deploy within 36 hours, so as a group we got our pre-shots and medical examinations. Our Major asked if I was healed from my Airborne accident. It was obvious he was ignoring the 10-pound boot strapped on my ankle. He then asked me: “If someone is chasing you with a knife, will you be able to defend yourself?” I told him, “Of course because I was trained to do so.” Then that was that: I was deployable. The next couple months I medicated myself for as long as I could get away with it with my prescribed supply of narcotics. So not only was I addicted to pain medication, I was also drinking excessively all the time. This kept on for the next four months. Finally it was New Year’s Eve and we got orders to deploy to Iraq within 24 hours. We packed up on a plane and were in Kuwait by January 6, 2007. We trained in Kuwait for the next month, and then shipped off to Baghdad, Iraq.
This next chapter of my life is the most crucial. We went on missions every two days. I was a truck driver, so I drove on every mission. I worked most closely with my platoon sergeant and a co-soldier. My platoon sergeant and I were close. We did everything together. I looked up to him as my mentor. He was smart and took me under his wing. My other team member was a male who hated females in the military all together. He made sexual harassment jokes and some of what he said broke me. He called me the “unit whore,” “the mascot,” “the pet.” I couldn’t tell anyone because my first sergeant was also a culprit of bad behavior. There were times when he made sexual comments to me. He had me drive him places to see what he could get away with. I wasn’t promoted because I refused to have sex with him. By now my female battle buddy and I had been split up, so I was the only female in my unit overseas at that time. I felt alone and stuck and unable to do anything about it. Eventually, a few more women joined our unit, but the ratio was 1:25, so we were still the minority. I didn’t feel a connection with them. Most of them had heard stories of me, so they assumed I was this military whore. It killed me inside. It broke me.
By November 2007, I was still stationed in Baghdad and not feeling good at all. At least I had a boyfriend at the time who was stationed on the same Forward Operating Base as I was. But I started feeling tired and weak, and during a visit to the medical center I found out I was pregnant. I feared telling my first sergeant, and after I did, I became the talk of companies. I wasn’t surprised about the gossip, but I was surprised that I was treated as if I were an adulterer who had committed the worst crime. My company and my unit looked down on me because I wasn’t married and as if I had gotten pregnant on purpose. Within two weeks, I was on a flight back to the states. I arrived in North Carolina in the middle of the night and in the freezing winter. Being pregnant and alone on the 82nd ABN base was miserable. My first sergeant—who was still overseas—was ordering the rear attachment to kick me out of the barracks to force me to find somewhere else to live. To make matters worse, at the time the soon-to-be father—who had left Iraq a month before I had—was living within walking distance of my barracks but had completely abandoned me.
So I decided to part ways with the military.
After being honorably discharged on March 13, 2008, I moved back to my home in California. I had my baby girl on May 5, 2008. Her father was supposed to be there for the birth, but he told me his unit wouldn’t let him take leave from Ft. Bragg for any reason. So my father stepped up and was in the room with me while I gave birth to my daughter. When it came time to pick a name for my daughter and to sign her birth certificate, I was the only parent who could sign, so I contacted her father and to let him know he would not be on the birth certificate. He was on the next flight to sign.
A couple of months later he got two weeks of leave in the summer and he came to spend time with our daughter. We decided we would work on things between us and make our relationship official. After those two weeks he left. I didn’t hear from him until I picked up the phone one day and called him five times in a row because I was furious. He finally answered and told me, “I can’t do this.” He couldn’t be with me; he couldn’t be a father. Nothing. I felt abandoned. I felt alone.
Life after the military was rough. I became alcohol-dependent, narcotics were still my best friend, and I was dependent on looking for love, as the song says, in all the wrong places. This got so bad that I ended up in an abusive relationship that left me broke and physically beat up. My daughter was there to witness this at two years old.
With that abusive relationship I hit rock bottom. I wanted to die. But I knew I needed help, so I went to the VA hospital and on my first visit I became emotional. A counselor began to help me pin-point my emotions. I told the counselor bits and pieces of situations that happened while in the military and before military life, including a sexual assault when I was 13 years old. I didn’t know how to process everything I was telling the counselor. I was scared of my own shadow and was fearful of the girl I once was. The therapists, counselors, and medical professionals diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and military sexual trauma. Despite the help from counselors, I was a mess, and I acted out like I was a child having a temper tantrum. I felt like I was literally outside of my own body disrespecting and blaming everyone else but myself. I was also disrespecting my temple that God’s given me. Soon the days turned into months and months into years. I relapsed and became reliant on alcohol as my main source of medicine. It was so bad that I fell into another trap and was sexually assaulted again.
I finally became aware that I was truly out of control. I needed real help—help that I needed to actually participate in. In retrospect, I had only been going through motions in therapy. I was emotionally numb to every situation. Thankfully I had the phone number of a favorite family therapist. I met with her and became consistent with my appointments. I also have the most amazing therapist at the Livermore VA. She has helped me work through everything.
She has opened my eyes to life. She has helped me start to love life. I am now a part of something greater. I am consistent with therapy and I actually look forward to getting help. I am beginning to feel emotions again. I actually have started to tear up lately. I encourage all veterans to cry when they want to cry. Don’t ever fight it. Once it’s out it feels like healing is truly happening. I think of tears as flushing out the old me from my system. I also encourage all of my co-veterans to become a part of Wounded Warrior project and other organizations such as the VFW, or Warriors Watch riders. Anything to help the healing process from all of the difficulties we all went through.
Looking back, I sometimes ask myself how could I have let all these things happen in my life. But then I remember that I was just a teenager when I signed that dotted line to give my life to the military. I was little more than a girl when I first walked down into that dark basement and was led along a trail of many mistakes.
In the military, everyone has a call sign. Today I am so honored to have my call sign be SMV, for single mother veteran. I like this call sign because I am a single woman, I am a mother, and I am a Veteran.
It feels good, and now I can finally start to renew the value of my life because I am worth it.