Let’s call her Sailor T. and say she suffers from PTSD as a result of MST, Military Sexual Trauma, which the military defines as rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Sailor T. is a statistic; she’s also my friend, and one of many women I know who have been assaulted while serving in the US military. She’s not one of the women standing next to me in my own boot camp photo, but she might as well be, because there’s likely another victim included there, as well. The statistics are staggering. Sources vary but often maintain that one in three or four women serving will suffer MST. Put another way, “A woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire”- Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA). When such crimes are reported, they rarely go beyond a name or an incident. So the question is, how does Sailor T. live after the Navy documents her stats, logs her testimony, files it alongside the many, many others, and sends her back home?
Sailor T. tells me, “My relationship with my real family has changed. The girl who went into the military was not the girl who came home, and I don’t think my parents and I have ever really been able to come to terms with that.”
The girl that entered boot camp, like many of the women in the picture (I suspect), had been excited about the possibilities. Sailor T. explains, “I felt more gender equality in the military in a lot of ways in that little things like rate or uniform items were the same for both [men and women] in a way I don’t think the civilian world has necessarily caught up to yet.”
Certainly there are growing opportunities for women serving and much like a coed sport, the commonality of shared experiences builds bonds between men and women working together toward a common goal. The armed services teach unit cohesion from the first day of boot camp as hundreds of units spend day after day marching the stifling drill halls before pounding the greasy-hot asphalt only to ingest industrial food within five minutes and hope for 4 consecutive hours of sleep per night for at least two months. And through it all, I recall, the only authorized communication between any recruit was to call one another “Shipmate.”
Sailor T. echoes the sentiment, “I think I bought the whole boot camp dogma hook, line, and sinker. When they said that you got your shipmate’s back, I really believed it was true.”
The military is like another kind of family, built of the concept of what’s happening to one is happening to all, so no one complains, every one does there part, until someone raises a red flag. What is it about a loss that builds cohesion? Are woman considered less valuable than men in the military? After Sailor T. reported her assault, “I was treated like a traitor and interrogated then hazed and made an example of. It didn’t compute with my initial experience. Yet at the same time I was still living and working with these people. I think that the ‘living and working with’ after a trauma is something that not everyone in the civilian world can quite understand.”
Another common misperception is what living with PTSD actually entails. So often it’s reduced to a sound bite or a broad list of psychological traits. But for Sailor T., symptoms of PTSD like hypervigilance and insomnia, “Become part of who you are. It’s like having a cold that goes away but you never quite stop coughing. What is interesting is you can do all the right things like therapy, coping mechanisms, meds, and yet all symptoms don’t necessarily go away. I used to think that meds were an intermediary until my coping skills got better. But I know and practice just about every skill in the book, yet take me off meds and my panic attacks are so debilitating that I can’t ride public transit or walk more that 2 blocks.”
Whereas before, Sailor T. believed she’d protect her country while providing herself a career, PTSD changed her world view: “I don’t believe things are going to turn out ok again. I don’t believe anyone will protect or help me other than me. I distrust authority figures and yet at the same time am still very proud of my military service and am still patriotic.”
Larger than Sailor T.’s individual experience is the vast amount of women just like her, many of whom are unable to share their stories, ever. Perhaps what’s most disconcerting for our country just waking to the MST epidemic is that so many like Sailor T., who likely would still remain voluntarily serving their country, now spend their days trying to make it down the street, the hope of young girls lost, the wisdom and experience of trained service members squandered, now spending their energy trying cross the street, no longer able to search for castles in the sky.
Some websites to learn more about PTSD: