Sexual assault runs rampant in the United States Military. I am sure many of us have grown tired of the constant briefings and trainings on the subject, but the problem isn’t going anywhere, and we need to know how to support those around us and those we lead through this situation. “Nearly one in four U.S. servicewomen reports being sexually assaulted in the military.” (Wenner Moyer, 2021) I am one of the many victims during my time in the United States Air Force. I am not looking for pity, I am just looking to get my experience and thoughts out to the world and maybe help someone in the process.
I entered the USAF October 2002 not knowing much about the military but with a huge love for my country and wanting to serve others. Serving others or helping others is a passion of mine and has been from a young age, almost to a fault. I have put others first with little regard for myself too many times to count. This will make more sense as to its importance later. I arrived at my first duty station April 2003 and really enjoyed working with and learning from the men in my shop; I was the only woman for a few months. Now, before you jump to conclusions, these men did not hurt me, and I still have contact with many of them almost 20 years later.
July 2003, I was enjoying being a young, single, and on my own young woman when the unexpected happened. Another young Airman and myself had gone on a date and I did not see it going anywhere. That should have been that. Long story short, they wanted to watch a movie after I got home from work a few weeks later and asked repeatedly until I broke down and said yes. Remember that part about helping others? I hated, and still do, saying no or letting people down. Many of you may be asking yourself how saying no is letting someone down, maybe I should rephrase it, I don’t like hurting people’s feelings. So, we put a movie on; Blue Streak, and I fell asleep during the movie. I woke up to him on top of me with his pants down. This is normally the part where I would have said, “At least I wasn’t raped.” I would like to also point out, I was not his only “victim”. There were five other women who came forward about different invasive acts from this one individual!
Now, this event took place before the military had sexual assault programs in place. This means, I had to tell so many people what happened to me, about 10 times to get things started. I was asked questions that made me feel dirty and like it was my fault. The very worst comment came from the perpetrators First Sergeant, “If you are caught lying, you will be kicked out.” Like, what the heck?! The craziest part of the whole situation was this happened right before I was set to deploy. When I was asked if I wanted to take it to a Court Martial, they explained it would have to wait until I got back from deployment. I did not see an issue with that, but the legal entities did. I was told it would not be fair to place him on “base arrest”, where he couldn’t leave base, for 6 months while I was deployed. NOT FAIR?! Um, okay. Anyway, I was not the only one going through the confusion and pain, my mother took it hard. She could not understand how this could happen in the military where, she thought, I should be the safest. Her and I both had to come to terms with the fact not all those who protect our country, protect their own.
Anyway, I handled this event by not handling it at all really. I focused on deploying and getting even better at my job. I focused on building a wall hoping to keep crappy people out of my life. My mom told me I spoke about it when it first happened then it was almost like I forgot about it. Part of me probably did, but the mind does what it needs to protect itself, and at that time, I must have needed that.
Let’s fast forward to early 2007 after the birth of my first child and things start hitting the fan. I did not feel like myself, I started panicking in public, matter of fact, I would panic just thinking about leaving the house. So, I asked for help and was thrown antidepressants. During this time, in 2008 I even became a Victim Advocate in hopes to be someone’s strength when they needed it most. Then, 2009 things were getting worse, so I sat down with someone and was diagnosed with social anxiety. Years of trying to talk myself down when anxiety tried to get the best of me led me to try again and again to figure it out. It was not until 2017, 14 years after the event, a doctor diagnosed me with PTSD from sexual trauma. All the anxiety I had been dealing with was from my PTSD.
I felt like I did not meet the necessary trauma level for PTSD, remember, I wasn’t raped. Well, who cares, trauma is trauma. People are affected differently and therefore will react differently. I could not continue to compare myself and how I was handling things to others. For so long I let the fact others had been through worse than me stop me from allowing myself to heal. If I could speak to younger Amanda when she was going through all of this, I would tell her, “It’s okay to feel violated, hurt, angry, sad, confused, and let down.” I put off getting the help I needed because I didn’t think I deserved it. I deserved help and deserved the care I received.
As I mentioned before, in 2008 I became part of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program as a volunteer victim advocate (VVA). I was so excited there was a program to help others through similar and worse situations, and I was able to be a part of it. Many of us in the program have been impacted in some way by sexual assault and can understand the pain a survivor is going through. I took a step back from the program for about four years until I arrived at my current duty station. The program had gone through many changes, so I attended the 40-hour training again to become a VVA. While I was so grateful to have an amazing team to be working with, the topics of the training sent me into a dark place. This is when I sought help and was diagnosed with PTSD. I was able to take a step back, get the help I needed, and get to a better place so I could help others. I cannot thank the SAPR team that was in place enough when it comes to helping me heal.
Now that part is out of the way, I want to thank those I worked with and those in my life who cared enough to be there. Although there was no program in place to properly support victims of sexual assault in 2003, my immediate supervisor did the absolute best in getting me to the appropriate offices ensuring what needed to be done was done. The men in my office offered to key his car or find him in a dark alley, not helpful, but I understood where it was coming from. My leadership later in my career was also very supportive when it came time for me to try and figure out what was happening to me. There were never many questions asked, like “what can I do to help?” or “are you okay?” but I was supported.
Don’t forget to ask those around you if they are okay. That one question could go a long way. Yeah, many will just brush the question off, but when you show you really care when
asking the question, you will get a real answer. Fake caring is transparent. So, when they say they aren’t okay, listen, don’t try to fix it. I have had so many people in my life, not knowing the whole story, try to fix me. Or my absolute favorite (insert sarcasm) “Just stop thinking about it.” Some of the best therapy sessions I had were just me talking and the therapist listening. Imagine what it would be like if those in our lives just listened, and we felt heard.
I hope this reminds individuals to stop and talk to those around them. Most importantly, listen to them. If you are someone going through trauma, I send all my strength your way.
Please know you are doing the best you can and handling your situation the best way for you. I am not fully recovered from the trauma, but I am doing well and I am proud of myself.
MSgt Amanda Smith-Taylor is the Career Assistance Advisor at Whiteman AFB, MO. She is also a certified D-SAACP Advocate.