And I am thankful. This Memorial Day, I am still thankful to all the women and men brave enough to risk it all serving their country, and I am unfathomably grateful to those who laid down their lives. All those serving, and who have served, carry an amazing burden-- part of their heroism is that they're willing to shoulder it to begin with.
We talk a lot on Memorial Day about those who have given their lives. We also talk about those Missing in Action, the the ones who are gone but never ever forgotten. We talk about the soldiers we couldn't save.
I want to talk about a different sort of loss, though. I want to talk about the soldiers who are missing even as they stand in front of us. And I won't deny there's a very personal reason that this issue is now close to my heart; I've learned a lot about it, and the most important thing I've learned is that families and soldiers need to know they're not alone.
(Trigger warnings for sexual assault, PTSD, suicide, depression, trauma.)
I want to tell you a story. This story is happening right now-- it happened five minutes ago, and it will happen again an hour hence.
While you are reading these words, this story is breaking someone's heart.
There is a mother in Missouri. Single mom, IT specialist. She's heating up a late dinner, cell phone tucked carefully in her pocket. When it rings and vibrates, it plays the special tune she has selected for her daughter, an Air Force officer stationed in Germany.
There is a father in Washington state. He's washing up after doing some chores outside. After all, there's no need to have dirt smeared on his face when he 'Skype's with his princess. He never wanted his daughter to join the Marines-- for the love of God, women are only six percent of the Corps! -- but there's no denying he's proud of her. They fought over it for months but, when she graduated from Basic Combat Training, he saw a woman and a soldier he was honored to have raised. She's at Fort Benning, training for Intelligence.
There is a sister in San Diego. She works the night shift, but she leaves her cell under her pillow, volume turned up high. Her big brother is in Afghanistan, working Transportation, and by no means able to call on a regular basis. But he's out there, lodged in a combat zone the way her heart is lodged in her throat. Every breath she takes is a prayer for his safety. What if he should be able to call, and she misses it? She is determined to be there on the other end of the line.
There is a wife in New York. She's tucking her children into bed, in the dim light of the streets and their glow-in-the-dark stars. It's been a long day, but it almost always is. She's a clerk at a law office in down-town Manhattan, and sometimes she thinks the commute exhausts her before she even makes it to her desk. She kisses the little ones, sweet dreams. Her laptop sits in the living room, all fired up and ready to go. She doesn't need video-chat to IM with her husband, but she likes being able to see his face. His ship is in port at Norfolk; it's win-win when they can have privacy and visual contact at the same time.
The mother's phone will ring, as will the sister's. The father and the wife will watch the blue 'chat' icon bounce and dial. This is the last moment of peace they will have.
What is on the other end? There's an Air Force officer who just spent an hour scrubbing her skin raw in the showers. There's a Marine who has been sitting on the edge of her barracks bed, contemplating her side-arm; this is the shape of it, the weight of it. I wonder how it tastes. There's an Army private in Afghanistan, who has spent the last three days trying to tell himself nothing happened, nothing _happened_ goddamn you. There's a pair of bloody underwear stuffed in the deepest corner of his duffle bag. There's a husband, freshly shaven, who applied that straight razor with a creeping sort of wonder; if he applied just a _little_ more pressure, what a bright and cheery red he would see.
The Air Force officer says, "Mama, something happened to me."
"I have to tell you," says the daughter, "but I don't know how."
"Please help me," the brother whispers, having called out of the blue, in the middle of a clear California morning. "Please, I don't know what to do."
The husband sees his wife's face come up on screen. This is the girl he played Ultimate Frisbee with in college, the graduate student-bride in her hand-me-down gown. He turns his own face away in shame.
"I was raped."
It was a fellow officer she often went to the gym with. It was a new guy she had fire watch with. It was someone-- or no one, please, no one because I really don't remember-- who tipped a little something extra in his drink while he was off-duty, and cornered him in the alley later. It was another solider who held him down when they were supposed to be cleaning out a storage compartment. It was someone she knew, it was someone she didn't know. It was civilian, it was another soldier. The attacker covered her mouth with his hand, kicked her in the stomach, came up from behind in the shadows, locked him in a choke-hold. The assault lasted forever; they staggered to their feet, amazed at how little time they'd lost. An hour, an eon.
She thought, "How can I ever tell anyone?"
He thought, "Who will believe me?"
In old English, to 'break with charity' means to have done someone a wrong. But a break is also a divorce, a separation from. And they are separated, these four soldiers-- from the rest of their company, from the hope of compassion, from the Esprit De Corps that is so lauded. This one may have filed a sexual assault report, and this one may have been too afraid to. This one may have stipulated reporting only if it was restricted-- protected from the eyes of command, those who would determine their careers. This one may have sat for a long time, head between his knees, wondering how the enemy-- a comrade! another sailor!-- got the jump on him. He may never even contemplated filing at all.
'Do men get raped?' he wonders, stifling his laughter. After all, it just happened to him; he should know. But it is also nonsense, just a collection of syllables. It is nothing that means anything to him.
She asks herself over and over again, "How could he do this to me? We _serve_ together." And then, "I wonder if I can get away with taking another shower." It feels like she will never be clean.
They think about the dismissive attitudes of the CO they reported to, or they flinch from the memory of the pitying looks at Range Medical. They think about the questions-- endless questions-- and so much paper work, and they think about the way they feel marked. Their uniforms move over their skin and they feel more than out of body, they feel completely alone.
The sad thing is, they are. Even as the Midwestern mother sobs, even as the father clenches his fists. While the sister tries to even out her breathing and the wife sits waiting for these words-- are they English words?-- to make sense, they are alone. Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy, goddamned Coast Guard. You are expected to be prepared to kill, and you are expected to be prepared to die, but there will be no fraternal arm extended now. A wound on the battlefield? Well, leave no man behind! Here, however… here in this most intimate of violations, the troops have already moved on.
The next few months will be an acidic blur. This one will suddenly be written up for infractions she never had before, this one will be told to shut up and forget about it. This one may try to commit suicide, and this one may succeed. He can't look at her anymore-- not being as wrong as he is. He forgoes his wife's touch in favor of the razor's kiss.
Perhaps the mother will write letters, protesting her daughter's medical discharge. Reams and reams of letters; to senators, representatives, JAG and the Department of Defense. She never had a problem before, her record was exemplary, what do you _mean_ 'failure to assimilate'? The father may seethe, may demand his girl make the CO listen-- she must stand up for herself!-- not understanding that sometimes a particular qualification for command is being born with one's ears closed. The sister may fret, and call, and try so hard to give comfort from thousands of miles away. The wife may try to get her husband to talk, to stop denying anything happened and get help, to no avail. And they will get responses, so polite and carefully worded. They will get forms and phone calls and the opportunity to file complaints, but the one thing they will not get is help for their loved one.
What happens to our soldiers? Any number of things. There are drugs, reckless behavior, a new promiscuity because their body has already been defiled. There will most certainly be at least one death. (His letter says, 'My Darling. Your pain will be temporary, but my peace will last forever.' And my God, what will she tell their boys?) The cogs will turn and the sun will rise and the military-industrial complex will trundle along, discarding those it considers damaged with barely a glance to spare. Some will get help, become not victims, but survivors. If they do so, it is on their strength alone, something intrinsic in their soul. This is not the type of bravery they teach you in boot camp. Whatever they accomplish, they do so from their own strength-- it is those they served with, who turned away, that are weak.
And if this one decides to finally deuce out, shoot up, get wasted… everyone has their breaking point. The wife sits alone, between her boys' twin beds as they breathe in and out their dreams. Underneath her anger and guilt she hopes he gets the peace he expected. She hopes he's somewhere where it doesn't hurt anymore.
While I was telling you this story, it happened again. Based on current statistics, a woman is three times more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than she is to be shot by the enemy. The Department of Defense has compiled data, created an initiative, supposedly made it easier to transfer out if the offender is of the same company. These numbers are mute; for every victim brave enough to report, a second or third is discouraged by their command, or made to feel ashamed. Numbers on men are difficult to obtain, for our society ensures that they under-report. Many of these victims are discharged medically-- or dishonorably, if their command can find a reason-- and separate from their branch of service without benefits. Without help.
Right now, after the phone is hung up and the computer shut down, our soldiers will wonder what to do. One foot in front of the other, alright, okay, but how?
She gets up, stores her sidearm, and does the only thing that makes sense.
She puts on her uniform.
He tells himself he's a man, that nothing happened.
He thinks, 'Hell, a bullet is the least of my worries'.
Some Very Relevant Links:
My Duty to Speak
Military Rape Crisis Center
CNN.com: Rape Victims Say Military Labels Them 'Crazy'
Reuters: Eight Women Allege Rape, Retaliation in US Military
The Department of Defense: Safe Helpline dot Org