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An Account of Military Sexual Trauma

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Editor’s note: The names have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of the people in this article.

Terri Smith joined the Army when she was 20 with high hopes of having a career. But her hopes were dashed within a short time, replaced by a nightmare of unbelievable proportions. Like many young people, she joined for the educational benefits, along with the desire to serve her country. Even while she was in the process of being recruited, Terri experienced sexual harassment, such as inappropriate comments from her recruiter, including being touched inappropriately by one of them.

The story she tells begins when she first arrives at her duty station. She said that she found out right away that it was hard for women to get by without being harassed or assaulted in some way.

“The guys were making bets on who would sleep with me first. And that sets the tone for what I experienced,” Terri remarked.

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Just a month after finishing basic training, it got even worse. One evening she was out with two of her “battle buddies,” two male soldiers. The women were encouraged to always be accompanied by a couple of other soldiers when they were in town. However, as the night wore on, she wanted to go back to the barracks, but her buddies wanted to continue partying. This is how Terri relates it:

“I was not intoxicated at the time and they were. They wanted to stay, so I hailed a cab and the driver let in two other soldiers that I didn’t know. I was in the front and they were in the back of this van-type cab. We were driving back and they were saying all kinds of inappropriate things, trying to get me to go back to their barracks with them. I told them, ‘This is not happening.’

“They grabbed me and pulled me into the back. Both attacked me at the same time. I had a dress on, so it wasn’t hard for them to do it. I’m screaming, but the cab driver didn’t stop the cab right away.”

She explained that when they got to the gate, she told the MPs (military police) what happened and they took the men in. She filed a report with the local police, as well as the military authorities, the next day and her unit followed up with her, as well.

Terri recounted, “During the brigade formation, the sergeant major targeted me and stated I was not with my battle buddies and I should have been and used me as an example as to why this practice was important.

“He never said that what they did was wrong. Everybody knew what was going on because they [the first sergeant and the sergeant major] made a big deal out of it.”

Terri went to a civilian counselor for a short period of time but didn’t feel comfortable talking to someone she didn’t know. Surprisingly, she got no support from the other females in her unit. The men were not supportive either. In the end, her attackers were prosecuted and found guilty.

In the midst of all this, Terri stated that the command sergeant major in her brigade sexually harassed her and this continued for four years. She wrote sworn statements about his actions and got other women to write sworn statements, but nothing happened.

Because of her experience of being raped, Terri decided to take classes in combative training so she could learn how to defend herself. She said was the only female in the class because most women didn’t want to put up with being punched and kicked ten to twelve hours a day. The men in the class wanted Terri out of the class and treated her worse than they treated each other. They took their anger out on her to such a point that she ended up with a Traumatic Brain Injury.

“All the men in the class targeted me. Half my body was bruised. They wanted me out of there and I persevered because I was trying to prove a point.”

To make matters worse, the instructor did nothing to stop it and sexually harassed her, trying to get her to sleep with him.

“He said to me, ‘I’m going to torture you until you do what I ask you to do.’ “But Terri did not give in or give up. In fact, she excelled to the point where she became certified as an instructor.

The final straw occurred when she found out she was going to deploy to Afghanistan with this particular sergeant major. She knew that things would only get worse once they were out of the country. That’s when Terri requested a discharge. She had been in the army for four years by then.

Terri recalled that during the exit interview, she was asked if she had been sexually assaulted during her time in the military and Terry said, “Yes.” All that the interviewer asked her was, “Are you okay?” Terri replied, “No. I’m not okay. Please sign my paperwork so I can get out of here.”

What was even more troubling was that prior to being discharged, a new first sergeant told her that he knew nothing about the rape and the other incidents. Terri told him, “Why would you. You guys sweep everything under the rug.”

She was frustrated because the military had rape seminars that the soldiers were required to attend. However, all they covered was how to report it if it happened. There was no self-defense instruction.
Terri stated, “It makes me angry because I’m supposed to be deployed with these guys and I’m supposed to give my life for these people. It [the rape, sexual harassment, and constant assaults] ruined my career.”

Now, she faced the uncertainty of civilian life and coping with the Post Traumatic Stress brought on by the past four years.

Fortunately, something is being done to help people who have been affected by Military Sexual Trauma. In October of last year, U.S. Congressmen Salud Carbajal (Dem. California) and Don Bacon (Rep. Nebraska) co-sponsored H.R. 6023, known as the “Veteran Restitution and Justice Act of 2023.” This bill would change the effective date of a veteran’s claim to allow veterans who experience sexual trauma during their service to receive retroactive disability benefits, starting from the day after their date of discharge from service rather than the date the claim was filed.

Since then, four Republican congressmen, including our own Gus Bilirakis, and eleven Democratic congressmen have co-sponsored the bill. These men and women have reached “across the aisle” to help our heroes. If this bill is passed, it will make it easier for people like Terri to claim their disability benefits and will compensate them fairly for the injuries they received in service to their country.

Part 2 of this article will relate Terri’s life from the time of her discharge in 2011 to the present time, how she dealt with the physical and mental effects of the trauma she experienced and how she is still dealing with it on a day-to-day basis, but most of all her courage and determination and her efforts in helping other veterans.

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