“Hey sweetheart, why don’t you sit on my lap?” the grizzled veteran taunted, his war hat pinned with jangling medals.
Most women would have laughed it off, or joked back, or ignored him. I verbally handed him his ass with indignant teeth bared, then crawled into a corner to cry quietly. Being a woman veteran is complicated. Being a survivor of military sexual trauma is even more so.
Anne Lamott once said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This is the story I own.
While the media flashes imagery of veterans in wheelchairs overcoming their plights, groups playing basketball, laughing faces supporting each other, I hide. When people expect you to show up for this meeting or that event, I avoid. When the anthem plays, I salute proudly, but as the drum rolls, so does one tear.
I am not proud of my service…and I am at the same time. Occasionally I remember feeling like a dynamo, commanding swaths of airmen, working together in well-oiled synchronicity. My discharge was honorable, but in my dreams, I still hear whispers of “whore” and “slut” pulling at the vestiges of my dignity. While other veterans swap war stories, I clasp my shutters tight. While I keep in contact with a choice few from active duty, I mostly purged the rest from my memory.
The walls close in. The musk of people invades my nostrils and my heart races, but I know I need to accomplish tasks in these places. I cannot abide the rooms with no windows, with no link to the soothing sky. The city which allows me to make a living also surrounds me, creeping closer, waiting to sink its claws into my frazzled mind.
I was an indomitable lioness when I was a fresh recruit. No obstacle could stand in the wake of my intent. And then they smashed it. Or I let them smash it, whichever is more accurate. They tell you not to apologize in one breath and punish you in the next. It is impossible to escape the guilt that accompanies the smashing. My body, my confidence, fragments of my soul, leached away like bones bleaching in the sun with every leer, every insinuation, every denied opportunity. I fought the current to stay alive, attempting to rebuild, and it sucked me under time and time again. The stigma of being a victim followed me into my life after active duty. Eventually I had to leave behind my entire career, regardless of my education and skills.
I found myself again in three ways. I started a business working with dogs. Dogs are the keepers of my confidences, the guardians of all that is wholesome, and unassailably trustworthy. I found in them the battle buddies I could not in my fellow veterans. So, musty fur comforts as it tickles my cheeks. My service dog sits at his post, diligently watching for any intruder…squirrels. I found my voice in sharing with others the joys of dogs. My karma rebuilt as I rehabilitated dogs that no one wanted. I could relate to that feeling. As I taught aggressive dogs to calm their violence, I discovered a power I wish I had earlier in life.
I learned to skydive. I unearthed the lioness and found her to be, in fact, a griffin with wings ready to soar. I no longer heeded those hissing whispers in my head telling me I was too clumsy or too this or too that to be able to jump. With the discarded doubts, I discarded the plane, and plummeted to Earth over and over again. Gravity also became my friend, providing me with a childish glee, something adults too often cannot recall. I found new friends who shared my love of the freedom of the sky. As I shed my old skin, my new one took to windy heights. Though they had tried—oh, they had tried—to break my wings, they remained unbroken, temporarily tucked away.
And I traveled. In wandering, I experienced for the first time going somewhere simply because I chose it. The heady power of it sunk into my bones and made me hungry to see more. I drank in the sights as if I could die of thirsting for new adventures. I watched…watched the people so far from my homeland, watched the strange animals and even more bizarre plants, watched the stars shifted askew across the dome of the sky. The quest for knowledge stirred in me the desire to continue my education, so I started my doctorate. Through the program, I found opportunity to expand both my mind and my experience. My travels fueled my schooling, which in turn spurred more travel in an ouroboros effect for my hungry, healing soul.
Through these three avenues, I reemerged anew. I was not the same as I was before my trauma, but something evolved. Something new. Something hardier. Something wilder.
I am not the picture-perfect veteran, if there is such a thing. I am not medals, stories, slaps on the back, and apple pie. I am not what they want to think about when they picture “veteran.” An uncomfortable reminder of something swept under the rug. But still here I am. Saluting.
This excerpt from Civil Liberties United: Diverse Voices from the San Francisco Bay Area, edited by Shizue Seigel and published by Pease Press, appears by permission of the author and editor. Essay copyright Dr. S., anthology copyright Shizue Seigel 2019.