Trigger Warning: this was hard to write, and it’s likely hard to read. I’m compelled to apologize, but truth is, I’m not sorry. I feel stronger having written it—like the power it’s had on me, even subconsciously, for more than two decades, is lessened by putting it down on paper—even proverbially. Thanks, Dr. Ford.
“You weren’t supposed to be there.”
“You were drinking under age.”
“What were you wearing?”
“We’ll charge you with Unauthorized Absence–that motel was off limits.”
“You must have asked for it.”
“How much did you have to drink?”
“This looks like you have a racial vendetta.”
“Why did you act like a slut?”
“Why didn’t you tell?”
“You caused them to sin–you should repent.”
“If you pursue charges we’ll ADSEP you for failure to adapt.“
These are a few of the questions —and allegations—hurled at me in the days and weeks after being gang raped in a crappy motel outside the gates of Camp LeJeune, NC in early February 1994. I was just a few days shy of 19 and a few weeks past graduating from Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island.
I wasn’t supposed to be off base.
I wasn’t old enough to drink.
I shouldn’t have gone to a hotel to drink and play spades with people I didn’t know that well. I had no place being there. I made poor decisions that night. I know all of that. I said those things to myself again and again again. Hell. I said variations of those through my whole adult life when I was in leadership and mentorship roles.
Keep yourself safe. You get the respect you command. Keep yourself above reproach.
All of these things were things for decades I thought I’d somehow failed to do because of all of the you allegations and the I statements. I now understand, after years of life experience and therapy and studying that rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power.
By keeping mostly silent about it for so long, I continued to feed the power it had over me.
I’ve decided to explain #WhyIDidntReport and a huge part of the reason is simply this: I wasn’t empowered to. Further, I was conditioned not to.
I remember pieces of that night perfectly. Waking up on the bed, tasting vomit and tequila. Unable to scream because of the hand over my mouth. I remember the weight on top of me. The pain. The voices—three distinct dialects because, strangers themselves before we’d classed up weeks prior, they were from different parts of the country.
To this day, I hear a certain dialect from anywhere not directly in front of me and I start to perspire. I don’t calm down until I SEE the source of the voice or leave the space altogether.
I remember their laughter. I remember the smell of cigarette smoke in the room. I remember casual conversation—about me. Words seared into my memory.
“I’m gonna turn her over so I don’t have to look at that face while I rip her ass open.”
“No one will believe we all got to to fuck her.”
“I’m not putting my dick in that mouth.”
I remember choking on vomit again, a hand still pressed over my mouth, the weight of it holding my head against the bed. I remember when I stopped fighting. I remember when I stopped crying. I remember when I closed my eyes and willed myself somehow not to be anymore. Not to be there. Not to be at all. I don’t know how long it lasted. I don’t know if all three of them raped me. I know two of them did. I know the third covered my mouth, held me down and said vile things while they did.
I know he talked the biggest game in days to come.
I remember laughter.
I remember standing in the shower, bruised and bleeding, crying and vomiting, feeling like I’d done something wrong. Like I caused it.
I remember taking a cab back to the barracks before the sun was up. I remember sneaking past the duty hut. I can see it in my mind’s eye but I don’t know if it’s the duty hut from the barracks I lived in years later, or the barracks I lived in that night. I just remember avoiding the Marine on duty because I was afraid to be seen coming back to the barracks so late–or so early.
If you’re asking why I can remember this in such detail, all I can say is it’s played randomly in my mind throughout the course of the last 24 years. I’ve written small pieces of it down. I had journals that were destroyed in a fight with my ex. I wrote some of it when I filed for a review of my comp and cert two years ago, and again last year. If I’m worn out or go to bed with something on my mind, or something prompts a memory, I’m raped in my sleep. I’ve gone MONTHS without having a scene flash in front of me, unbidden, and then there it is. It’s a constant in the choices I make—the books I won’t read, the movies I won’t watch, the hotels I [won’t] stay in.
First time I stayed alone in a hotel and felt remotely safe—actually got a good night’s sleep—I was in my thirties. It was a Marriott. To this day, it’s my hotel of choice when I travel with someone and it’s a requirement if I’m traveling solo. I’ll sleep in my truck on the side of the road before I’ll sleep in a little no name motel. Even in Abu Dhabi—I stayed in a Marriott.
I don’t know why I remember the bits and pieces I do—and why I can’t recall the bits and pieces I don’t. I can see a scar on one of their eyebrows but don’t remember his first name and there were three dudes with his last name in my class. The same is true of things I experienced before the rape, and after. I think it’s the brain’s way of coping.
I remember not telling anyone because I was embarrassed and figured no one would believe me anyways–no one believed me when I was molested in foster care—who would believe me now?
The first duty day after being raped I was angry and afraid to stand in formation. They stood behind me and I could hear them talking. I could hear them laughing.
I remember feeling dirty standing there hearing their voices, aware of the bruises on my thighs and arms and I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood again. I was thankful for “sleeves down” so no one could see their fingerprints on my arms.
I remember one of them saying “that white pussy was wet because she wanted it” and I remember PFC Zac Cernac, standing next to me, turning around and telling them to shut the fuck up.
After formation he turned on me, asked why I’d done it. Why I slept with any of them—why I slept with ALL of them. [I just sighed so hard the dude sitting 5 feet away from me in Starbucks looked up, startled.]
I told him I hadn’t slept with them. They were liars. He said they talked about a scar I have on my hip–and he called me a slut. I was so ashamed and so worried Zac wouldn’t stay my friend. We had similar interests—skateboarding and West Coast punk rock. He persisted. Somehow he’d decided he was my moral compass and I was going to answer his questions about my behavior. I finally acquiesced. They weren’t lying. It wasn’t consensual—but they weren’t lying. He said. I’d lied about not having sex with them, I said I didn’t. They’d had sex with me—it was was true—but it wasn’t consensual. I didn’t have sex with them. THEY HAD SEX WITH ME.
Finally, he understood.
I can still close my eyes and see the anger in his face—I worried he was angry at me. He wasn’t. He walked out of the galley classroom and told our class advisor. That staff sergeant—I still know his name—told Zac I must’ve wanted it. I must’ve invited it with my actions in the classroom, at pt, around the barracks. He told Zac I’d be charged with underage drinking, with UA. He sent Zac back to me with the message of “keep your mouth shut or you’ll be ADSEPPED so fast your head will spin.”
While he stood there, visibly angry and spewed all of this at me all I could say was, “I told you not to tell.”
He was a social justice warrior ahead of his time and he sought out our company commander. I remember standing at attention in that captain’s office hours later, squared off in front of his desk with four staff sergeants in the room. My class advisor was white and the other three staff sergeants, one female and two males, were black. The male captain was white. Zac was white, and somehow there as an ally, albeit voiceless. We were PFCs in a room full of staff non commissioned officers and a captain, after all.
We didn’t get to speak. We were there to listen.
The captain said each of the staff sergeants were there as character witnesses for each of us young Marines “facing charges” and he’d listened to each of them. He concluded the three I “alleged” had assaulted me were squared away Marines and that he’d decided not to pursue charges against ANY of us. He said he was willing to overlook the fact I’d created a “racial divide” in our class as long as I maintained my bearing and there were no “further incidents.” He said if this went to a formal process we’d all be kicked out of the Corps.
We went back to class. Our advisor reminded us to keep our noses clean and told Zac he’d be “throwing his own career away for nothing” if he didn’t let this go.
And we did. We stayed quiet. We finished school and “hit the fleet.”
We both got orders to Camp Pendleton—I went to 1stFSSG and he went to 7thESB. We lived in separate barracks but I could practically see his from mine and it was somehow comforting. We saw way less of each other in this “fleet” than at the schoolhouse, but he was the only friend I had, and an odd source of security.
Poor kid was 18.
When I checked into my chow hall they were short handed and down to two watches. A “watch” is what they called a team of cooks and two watches means you’re basically working some part of every single day of the week. I remember standing there in my starched whites thinking “this is a new start—no one from school is here except Zac and he’s at field mess.” Gunny asked the two chief cooks, one sergeant and one staff sergeant, “Who gets her? The brown watch or the black watch?” The watches were divided by color and, as seems obvious, most of one was black, most of the other were Hispanic.
I remember the black staff sergeant stepping forward and saying, “We’ll take her. I just got back from the schoolhouse and I know she’s a mud shark —she’ll like our watch.”
The sergeant from the brown watched stepped forward and said “she’s ours—you guys got the last white girl.” It sounds awful, but that’s what he said. We spoke of it YEARS later and he said the reason he “took” me, despite not wanting to have to deal with a WM [woman Marine, often described as a walking mattress] on his watch, was that I looked terrified when the staff sergeant claimed me.
The other white girl, a lance corporal, pulled me aside later and showed me places in the chow hall to avoid being if I was alone. She told me which corporal on the brown watch she was dating, declaring him off limits. Solidarity.
I went to mass at the base chapel, and then confession. I wanted someone to absolve me of what had happened in North Carolina a few short months ago.
Raised Catholic, I was wracked with guilt.
The priest, a Navy chaplain, told me I’d “tempted those boys—caused those young Marines to sin.” He prescribed three Our Fathers and 12 Hail Marys and I still remember being simultaneously incredulous and angry- what kind of math was that? That was 1994. I didn’t go to mass again until 2004 when a friend was killed in Iraq and skipping funeral mass was not an option. I’ve never entered a confessional again. The closest I’ve come is two years ago in a church in France—I wanted to step in and see the damage left from World War II—but that’s the once space in the church I couldn’t go.
I worked a lot. I fought a lot. In the chow hall. At punk rock shows. In the lineup at the beach when we had time to make it to early morning surf breaks. I was accosted often, usually by the staff sergeant who’d been at the schoolhouse and the Marines on his watch. Yes I know his name. And some of their names. And the brown sergeant’s name. Yes I’m intentionally not including them.
There was no point in telling—Gunny made jokes about the females showing up with charge sheets in one hand, a pen in the other. Marines saw the things that happened. I learned to bake. I fought. I mastered roux and steam jackets and bacon in convection ovens—still don’t understand cooking bacon on anything but a sheet pan. I felt like every time I turned around I was written up for something. Don’t get me wrong—I was belligerent and angry and probably deserved to be written up a good amount of the time but I was literally ALWAYS in trouble.
I’d find an ally if sorts and they’d be berated and targeted by staff sergeant’s little crew, and then they’d keep their distance.
I worked what they called “day on stay on” for months on end that first year. Punishment was often showing up an hour before anyone else to turn on the ovens–and there was often a staff sergeant at the mess hall to “help.”
Lots of surfing and skating, punk shows w/ Zac, trips to Mexico with the Marines from Military Police Company—and every time I turned around I was “belligerent” to someone. That seemed synonymous for “asshole female lance corporal stood up for herself when she was harassed at the chow hall”.
That next summer, in 1995, after finally settling into a ‘normal routine’ of lots of work, plenty of belligerence, field days and skateboarding, Zac died. Literally died. He died.
My only ally [I had several friends I was comfortable with and felt safe going to clubs and shows with, surfing with or learning to line dance with at the Double Deuce, but Zac knew my secret. He knew, he was my friend in spite of it and he died.] He died.
He was skating on the Oceanside pier, fell and hit his head. He never came out out of the coma. I’d dropped him off at the pier [I had a car that belonged to someone out on the MEU because, well, 1995 and FSSG life] and I was an asshole when he got out of the car. He leaned in to say something snotty and I fired back. I don’t remember what we said but we were fighting about something his girlfriend, a CORPORAL, had done. [Yes, I know her name and yes, I remember the thing she did and no, I’m not going to publish it. It’s not mine to share.]
So snotty words among friends, “Call me if you need a ride back” and I drove away.
Days later he was listed as unauthorized absence and there as a plea from the Oceanside PD asking to identify a young white man with a “Mohawk like haircut”.
They listed his tattoos. I knew the tats— I’d driven him to get one. I walked over to 7thESB and told his gunny.
His parents came down from NorCal. I remember being at the hospital. Meeting them. His little brother. I remember they argued about extubating him. I remember thinking “he can’t die because he knows my secret and likes me in spite of it”.
He died. I think it was Scripps in La Jolla.
We had a funeral on base. I wrote a poem, read it. His “dumb girlfriend” and his little brother were his SGLI recipients. I remember a bunch of us angry about seeing her flaunt that money… I was angry about EVERYTHING at that stage in life though, so who knows.
[note: I burned some of my uniforms when I left the Corps the first time and my grandma refused to let me burn “the memories.” I have stacks of photos and scrap book type stuff because she saved everything I sent home. That’s where this was—in a binder she made.]
I was angrier. And ragey-r. I saw a counselor. Talked about Zac. Talked about rape. Talked about another Page 11. And another. And another.
Months went by. I met a corporal from another base early the next year. He gave me a coffee pot for Valentine’s Day after we’d dated for a couple of months.
We went on road trips and he proposed at the end of the summer. Wanted to marry me contingent on me leaving the Marines because I had too many guy friends.
I was ready to leave the Corps anyhow after spending much of the last year working in the company office. I finally got snatched out of the chow hall and sent to work for the first sergeant because I was a “discipline issue.“ The Marines at CST orchestrated this. Instead of letting the chief cooks keep writing me up they snatched me up for working parties and instead of more bad paperwork I went for long long runs and dug lots of holes and buried charge sheets when my mouth got the best of me..
The first sergeant thought he was an AMAZING leader though, because I never really got in trouble again. Funny thing. He never accosted me, he was respectful to the new female company commander and thereby demonstrated I warranted being respected [yes, I know both of their names] and I felt more or less SAFE going to work.
I left the Corps in October 1997, got married in early 1998 and moved in with my husband later that year. Started college. I was a hard core born again Christian by then and remember telling him one day how refreshing it was to share my testimony with the women in my bible study group and not be judged.
He pulled the jeep over and said, “Look. You’re gonna have to work on a new testimony. I’m going to be an officer after college and I don’t want people to know my wife was a foster kid w/ junkie parents who was raped by black dudes. No one knows us here. You can be anyone you want to be—but you can’t share that anymore. Focus on other things.”
I was 22, married a whole year by then. That marriage lasted just over a decade and I focused on other things.
We finished college. I reenlisted in the Marines [enlisted, mind you] the week of September 11th. That was a HUGE affront to my young lieutenant. Yuge.
War. Iraq. Lots of time stationed in the desert. He deployed several times. So did all of my friends or my friend’s husbands. Afghanistan. More deployments. Buncha funerals. So many funerals and memorials.
A few things jump out at me—a Marine saying or doing something inappropriate and then me having a conversation with my husband and hearing “what kind of vibe were you sending off? What did YOUR email say if that first sergeant sent you a photo of his dick? He’s a great Marine.”
I was angry enough and mature enough to tell a major from that great Marine’s company and was reminded “first sergeant so and so was just awarded for bravery—you’re public affairs, you know how this works. It will make the base look bad. He’s PCSing soon.” My husband PCSd first. I stayed behind on med hold and that Marine broke into my house, jerked off all over my uniforms. A neighbor reported his truck in my driveway.
Combat though–and valor.
[almost] Ex asked, again, what I’d done to invite that behavior. Friend of mine showed up after work, fixed the sliding glass door and brought me a .45 and a box of ammo.
When I was medically separated in 2006 I had a comp and cert appointment that was a lot of paperwork and about 15, MAYBE 20 minutes with the doctor.
I remember I didn’t get a parking ticket and I’d only been there an hour.
He asked about sexual assault. I said it’d happened in my first tour. He asked if I wanted to “include it.” I didn’t know what that meant. He said “if the VA knows about it you’ll end up in group therapy and art and hug sessions.”
Nah man. I’ve had therapy [and just spent a decade being shamed for being raped, learned to be embarrassed about being a foster kid with all that entailed and] so I’m good. I’m just here as a formality. I have a new job, and I have insurance.
My divorce was was final in early 2007. It was amicable but we’re not friends and not in contact. I worked in D.C. for a bit. Then went back to California to work for the Marines again as a civilian public affairs officer.
I attended a lot of funerals in a short amount of time–just as many as I had in the years I was there on active duty as a public affairs Marine. I received emails every.single.day with SIRs and PCRs, just like my last few years on active duty, and I still often recognized the name of the Marine or Sailor in the subject line.
I went to Afghanistan as a contractor on a PSYOP team. Can’t talk much about it—there was a lawsuit when I finally came home and a non disclosure, but the program manager issued me a rape whistle as part of my on boarding when I asked about going to the range because my contract included carrying a sidearm. “Take this, you’ll need it before you need a weapon. Everyone on the team is armed anyways.”
Alright then. I found allies. “Battles” I was comfortable with—men I trusted to keep me safe on our compound and off. Developed a whole new respect for the Army.
Afghanistan scratched the itch I had to deploy, to be in the same patch of desert with my friends who were still deploying, fighting, dying or coming home with wounds, seen and unseen. Wasn’t the best career move I ever made, but hindsight.
I went. I came home.
I struggled for a while when I got back to the states. Met someone. Fell in love. Made plans. Looked at property. He killed himself. Killed my five year plan too, but my therapist said that’s only as true as I let it be.
Went to the VA for awful back pain shortly after that in 2012—first time ever using the VA— and during intake they asked if I’d felt sad, listless, lonely in the last 30 days. That poor nurse. I started crying and didn’t stop. She set me up with a grief counselor. Intake session “start with your childhood” and included rapid fire questions about everything in between and she concluded in 50 minutes that my real issue with his suicide was that he was just another in a long list of men to abandon me.
My dad. My brother. My husband.
I’m sad cause my fiancé blew his brains out.
My brother didn’t abandon me.
I don’t miss my dad—never knew the guy.
I divorced my husband. No loss there either.
So it went for three sessions. I’d go in having not slept, or having fallen asleep after I passed out crying, and she’d dig into “life as a foster kid” and rip my feelings to shreds and then end the session so she could make notes. At the end of the fourth session I said I was not coming back and she said, “OK. Hey. Were you ever assaulted in the Marines? We need females to participate in this new telehealth group therapy sessions we have…”
Yes I was and no. I’m not signing up for group rape therapy. I’m looking for the “how to cope with saying awful things to someone you love and then waking up to the news they’ve killed themselves” therapy.
Massive TBI (wear a helmet, y’all, even on a razor scooter) and my brain is wired differently. I moved from California to NYC for a job, finished that contract and went to work at the VA in the Bronx. I was there a few months, overwhelmed by all things NYC and commute and traffic and people, oh god there are so many people. I was in the elevator at the actual hospital one day [I worked in the building behind it and was in the building as a patient] and ended up on the elevator with three black dudes who were roughly my age. I don’t know what prompted it —they neither said nor did anything inappropriate that I can recall—but I found myself snap in the middle of an anxiety attack. I hadn’t had one before and I didn’t know that’s what it was until later, but I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe and needed off the elevator.
The door opened and I was on the floor with the PTSd clinic. I walked in and asked to be seen. She gave me an explanation about process and a referral and the women’s clinic and… I remember pulling out my employee ID, telling her my title included DIRECTOR [of public affairs, so I was no one, really] and threatening to come back with a camera.
NOT MY FINEST MOMENT
I was seen by a therapist. She took copious notes. Calmed me down. Scheduled an appointment with a therapist who had space on his caseload. Did I care if the doctor was female or male? I remember how hard it was to whisper, “I don’t care about gender but it can’t be a black therapist.” After years and years of “shame” about being raped, and a few therapy sessions, I knew myself well enough to know I wouldn’t sit and be honest and raw with a black therapist—I’d feel compelled to apologize.
I got a Jewish dude [so New York ] and only after months of real work in weekly sessions did I learn he’d been in the IDF. He was a vet too. He worked with me on grief and anger and survivor’s guilt and rape [I HATE the acronym MST] and used great hockey analogies and told me I might need to look for a different job because my inbox was a daily basket of fresh triggers.
He also asked me to engage a VSO and have MST and PTSD added to my formal VA rating.
I made an appointment with a VSO north of the Bronx. Topics: MST, my back and my mouth.
Old white guy met me in the hallway and said “so I read your whole file but don’t see anything about the rape—let’s focus on that cause that’ll get ya 100% and none of the rest will matter.”
I asked if we could speak in his office and not the hallway.
We discussed my records. All of them. I’d provided hard copies of my ENTIRE medical and dental records weeks in advance. He’d skimmed for rape and moved on.
He told me about HIS PTSd, about “gook broads who tried to rob them…“
I stopped him, asked what I needed to do to move forward. He said, kid you not, “find at least three guys you were serving with when the rape happened, have them write statements about your character and work ethic before the rape and afterwards and have them submit a copy of their DD214s so we can prove they were in back then. It’s an easy process.”
He had me sign a power of attorney giving his office permission to file a claim on my behalf and I left. Never went back. They filed the claim and it was returned unsubstantiated for lack of corroboration. Never mind medical records and dental records… And no. I didn’t reach 20 years into my past to ask for statements. The one person who knew all the details is dead—and I didn’t keep up with staff sergeants or the guys who raped me.
I resigned from the VA shortly thereafter.
Later that year I moved out of NYC. In NC I went to the VA in Durham. I hoped to see a therapist and a physical therapist.
They had no record of me having ever seen a therapist in NYC and had just basic detail of me being a VA patient at all.
I did an intake like a brand new patient. Signed up for a PCM and saw a therapist as a stop gap measure because I was in distress.
It’s exhausting, dumping all of your shit on the table time and time again.
Never sure what’s bothering me more. His suicide. My rape. Dead friends.
I’ve processed a lot of it, I write a lot, I’ve got some great friends who work in the mental health field—I’ve had some great conversations—and still there are days where I can’t function for the barrage of memories. The shame. The recall.
Last summer my back was bothering me and I went to the VA in D.C. I was on a waiting list for a PCM in the women’s health clinic, so I had to go to the ER. While I was there I asked for a referral to mental health. They said I had to get that from a PCM. I pointed out I was on a wait list for a PCM. She set me up with a therapist who took walk-ins and I explained I was hoping for a referral to establish a rapport with a therapist. She gave me one.
My initial wellness appointment was a one hour orientation on a small room with 11 dudes who ranged from their 20s to about 70. It was a stressful hour.
I had my 15 minute one on one fill out paperwork session and she explained if I did 10 sessions with the group I’d “rate” a one on one therapist. “The demand is high and they want you to demonstrate your commitment to the wellness clinic before they assign you an individual therapist.”
So in order to QUALIFY for a therapist to talk about, among other things, being gang raped by three black dudes I had to sit in a series of group sessions with, well, a dozen black dudes? That math didn’t add up for me, and I didn’t go back. “Wasn’t committed to the wellness program,” as it were.
I’ve found an ally at that VA, though. A welcoming place to sit and have a cup of coffee when the emotional toll of being in the physical building that is the VA is overwhelming. Someone who talks, and listens, despite her busy schedule.
Last spring I opened the claims process, again, to have mouth, back and MST added. Online this time, not gonna look an old dude in the eye and talk about rape ever again.
Hours into the process and the system crashed.
Filed a trouble ticket. Talked to a tech.
I asked about recovering the lengthy submission about being raped and he said it wasn’t gonna happen. Wasn’t recoverable.
I was at my best friend’s house—she was in the living room—I was on the balcony.
“Dude. I just wrote several thousand words about a really awful experience. Can you TRY to recover it?”
“Nope. Anyways if it’s true it shouldn’t be hard to remember—just write it again and save it to your desktop before you submit.”
From the other room my usually calm best friend said “Dude. Just hang up the phone.”
I filed again last fall. They changed my status by 10% for my back, completely ignored MST and said my oral surgery [they call it dental] issues were uncorroborated.
Mind you. This isn’t about a percentage. Or a check.
It’s about having it included in my profile so I have access to care without jumping through my ass at each new VA or with each new doctor.
A few months ago I was in my case managers office and he called the Vet Center nearest me to set up a counseling session and when he put me on the phone her first question was “when were you deployed?” I wasn’t, ma’am. “Well then you don’t rate to come to us for therapy.”
I handed the phone back to him, repeated what she said and started to walk out. He said “this VET has a history of MST—“ and I listened while he explained.
He offered the phone back to me and I demurred—“she just said I don’t RATE care there—I don’t want to go there, no matter how she backpedals.”
And so. [telehealth started this week and I’m stoked about it. The issue is, it’s STILL not part of my VA profile. I’ll be seen here in D.C., like I was in the Bronx, and when I leave, none of it will follow. Every time I seek care, this topic comes up. I’d love to have VBA do their job so I don’t have to have a conversation about rape each time I’m at the VA—so no one tells me I don’t rate care. All of this is packaged up with me fighting to have my mouth taken care of, and it’s insane. This shouldn’t be this hard. That fight is ongoing but it’s all mashed together.]
Why am I writing now? Because I believe Dr. Ford. Because seeing it all play out and seeing MUCH of America say “boys will be boys” and “she shouldn’t have been drinking” and “what was she wearing” and “why didn’t she tell” ripped the “I was gang raped and no one let me talk about it, ever” box wide open.
Because all of a sudden, night after night in a month of terrible sleep I was 18 and being raped, 19 and being silenced, 20 and being accosted every day at the chow hall.
Because I’m still fighting VBA for care for my mouth and every time I go to the VA and see a new doctor or start a new process they ask “were you ever sexually assaulted?” I’ve always said yes, but I’m still asked on every visit.
YES, I was raped.
YES, I was raped.
YES, I was raped.
There, Padre. That’s one for each of them.
I’m not crippled by it. [I think I’m pretty functional] I generally don’t spend much of my time dwelling in that space but, as a new VA therapist said this week, in a first ever [for me] telehealth session, I was raped. That was trauma with a big T and it lead to decades of small t traumas—and I’m finally fully aware of it and now I understand it’s been part of my life, even in the background, at every stage.
I packed that box away but it’s still there. For me, the BIGGEST shame was the simple fact of saying it out loud.
I’ve talked about foster care. And heroin. And suicide. And survivors guilt. But not rape. Not really. My closest friends know. I’ve alluded to it in some form or another in myriad pieces I’ve written over the years, but there it is.
I was raped. I was ignored. I was shamed. I was silenced. I was punished for it, again and again, my whole first tour in the Marines. I was labeled belligerent. Unleadable. I left with a stack of bad paperwork and no good conduct ribbon. Their favorite charge was disrespecting a SNCO.
Newsflash, Gunny. You’d disrespect the staff sergeant who walked into the bake shop several mornings a week, stood in the doorway, dropped his pants and told you to suck his dick with a smile on his face, too.
I guarantee it.
My last tour in the Corps was better than the first —but I still didn’t have the voice I needed for me, despite being a voice for other people, other topics. I still swallowed a mile of bullshit in order to save face and bury the shame.
I’ve worked through a lot of it. I don’t regret joining the Marines—and I’m glad I returned after September 11th—but I’ve never once steered a young woman towards the eagle, globe and anchor. Never. Once. Ever.
I think we’re the sum of our experiences and I’m fond of saying I’m not defined by any single one of them but damnit if I’m going to keep this a secret anymore.
It didn’t matter what I drank.
It didn’t matter what I wore.
It didn’t matter where I was.
What matters is they chose to commit a crime against me—and I’m not responsible for that.
They raped me.
I didn’t report because I believed no one would listen—that no one would care—and for the most part, I was right.
Years ago, as a civilian public affairs officer for the Corps I asked why we called it MST and not rape or at least sexual assault anymore. My boss said “MST is easier to discuss—rape makes commanders uncomfortable.”
Well, General, rape is uncomfortable.
If you know me you’re some odd mixture of angry, sad, disgusted, pitying and proud [of me] right now. That might be the case even if you don’t know me.
People will always hurt people. Traumas will always occur— big T AND little t traumas.
Here’s the thing. I can’t tell you what to feel.
I don’t tolerate pity well, anger is unhealthy for both of us, proud seems … awkward, disgust ruins appetites, sad is good as long as you work through it, but here’s what I’d ask you to do with that energy instead:
Be an ally. Be a voice. Be a defender. In the classroom, in the barracks, in the workplace, in the courtrooms and boardrooms and locker rooms and on the playground. Have the heart of an 18-year-old punk rock kid from NorCal and speak up when you see bad things.
If everyone had the heart of Cernac, this world would be a different place.
Post script—I think this photo is great punctuation.
Last weekend I attended a farm gala dinner. Farming soothes me, wears me out, and excites me. It’s the future I’ve chosen for myself. I scrambled for a safety pin as I got dressed—there was a bit too much cleavage. I found a sergeant chevron in my junk drawer. I used it instead. Tucked away among the folds of my outfit, it was unseen but I felt the weight of it. I laughed and told a friend, showed her as we stood in line for a cocktail. I asked her to snap a picture. Looking at it now it strikes me as appropriate. The Marine Corps is part of me—tucked away near my heart. It’s heavy —I know it’s there, I can feel it—but it doesn’t define me anymore and it doesn’t control me.