Wouldn’t life be grand if we could order what’s on our plate from a menu? “Welcome to Life Cafe, can I take your order?”
“Hi, yes, good morning! Can I get a number 7? That’s a family size Peace of Mind, right? Perfect. Can I sub the side order of physical beauty with emotional fortitude instead? Free of charge? Ah, you guys are so accomodating here! Thank you.”
L-O-L. If only we could order what we consume in this life off of a menu, right? I wish we could. I wish I could have been born to a mother who had learned to manage her schizophrenia instead of spending a childhood watching her check in and out of psychiatric hospital holds. I wish my father had never allowed his new wife to brutally abuse me. I wish I had believed I had more viable opportunity when I turned 18 beyond my choice to enlist in the military. I wish the recruiter, who often made comments about how my body would beautifully fill out a uniform, hadn’t told me all about the free college I would earn and the free healthcare I would receive, along with a signing bonus. I wish I had never come to believe that I was joining a new family of trusted brothers and sisters when I shipped off to boot camp. I wish I could have ordered my circumstances, and then I never would have had to strap on my combat boots that morning a male superior in the United States Navy insisted I suck his dick before taking a bathroom break while on watch in February of 2007 in Saratoga Springs, NY. I refused his demands, and instead sat quietly, fearfully staring deeply into the corner of our small guard shack as he relieved his sexual urges into the only willing mouth available: the mouth of a water bottle. All I wanted to do was use the restroom, and then stay in that stall away from this nightmare until I could somehow open my eyes again. The six hours to follow on that watch were riddled in fear and confusion: would he do this to me again? Would he insist on more later? Would he tell someone that I was somehow to blame? Only few days into the age of 19, this small town Midwestern sailor had only just begun to learn that in the Navy, the voice of a man was far more powerful than one of a female.
Nobody believed me, or at least they said that they didn’t. Ours was a small command, and as a female who had a lot longer left until she left this station, I was warned not to start any more trouble, especially not for a married father of two who was only a few years away from retirement. He was moved to another watch rotation, not for my safety, but to protect his. He was the one who needed protection from a young female sailor. How dare I try to ruin the career of a decorated servicemember? It was a sentiment I would hear two more times in my 8 year career as a military police officer, one who specialized in anti-terrorism and force protection. No matter how thick my skin had grown, no matter how forcefully I would assert my strength, my competence, my reputation, and my willingness to humbly complete missions with a team of professionally qualified military law enforcement officers, I would often receive the feedback that I was too feminine and too sexy. I was too sexy in my baggy uniforms and combat boots. I was too sexy in a Kevlar vest. I was too sexy with a drop holster. I was inherently too sexy for many to believe that I didn’t offer consent when my leading petty officer forced his hands onto my breasts during a combatives exercise. I was too sexy for him to be able to control himself from grabbing my behind and whispering in my ear that he knew I wanted this.
I was too sexy when mobilized at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait in 2013. I was clearly a slut, it was obvious by fit of my physical readiness gear, I often heard. I was too sexy when a Chief Petty Officer, months away from retirement closed his office door, insisted on taking me on a “date” in Kuwait City. As the Transportation Chief for our small Navy contingent, it would be easy for him to get off-base movement approval for just the two of us. I was too sexy for him, obviously. I was too sexy for anyone to believe that I protested when he unbuckled my uniform pants, removing my belt as my type III combat utilities fell to my ankles. I was too sexy for him not to grab my privates. I was too sexy to believe that I didn’t want that, either. A petty officer 2nd class with 7 years of good conduct, I was too sexy to be labeled, once again, as anything but a lying troublemaker.
It was my fault: I was too sexy. I was too sexy, but sexy enough to quietly keep around. Each of my experiences of Military Sexual Trauma, or MST, was met with the command pressuring my silence, moving me to other work centers, and command-wide whispers that I was the kind of girl who tried to ruin careers with my sexual advances. Though I had grown into a woman confident in uniform who enjoyed showing her male colleagues that women could accomplish anything that we wanted, I found myself at the age of 26 questioning if it was safe for me to continue to serve my country.
In the 5 years since I was awarded an honorable discharge, I have discovered that I have severe post traumatic stress disorder after battling life-threatening substance addiction, homelessness, hospitalization post suicide attempt, and a dark cloud of shame as I had grown to believe that my body and femininity were shamefully dangerous. Any time I was asked why I left the service, embattled scenes of this objectification flashed in a painful highlight reel in my mind as I would fumble out some generic line about being in search of a new journey.
The journey has simply been growing to learn, through intensive therapy, that there is great freedom in celebrating the strengths, beauty, and voice I’ve been gifted. The journey has been learning that there are men who will respect my boundaries. There are men who don’t want to hunt me into a corner to take advantage of my body, but I still fear any man that gets too close to me. The journey has been in learning that receiving a text message from a new chief petty officer, who found my number on a recall list, that he wanted to ‘tonguejack” my “shitbox” is not a text I deserved. The journey has been in learning that it was not my fault that I have been assaulted. The journey has been in learning that not everyone is going to assault me. Not everyone is going to pretend that it’s okay.
And I’m certainly done pretending that it’s okay. It took me a long time to be able to even understand that I had so many emotions in related to these experiences. I stuffed them down so tight that the one day erupted in a display some could liken to a blast like Mt. Helen: it took me years to clean up the destruction. But since learning that I was exploited, manipulated, abused, and betrayed, my only solution to ensure my life never blows up again is to reclaim the power I never ordered off the menu to be stolen. I stand before you today as one of many survivors of military sexual trauma. I stand before you as a woman who’s beat the odds as I’ve committed to recovering from these horrors and the PTSD that can sometimes keep me up at night. I’m one of many survivors of MST who deserved a better advocate fighting for my rights. I’m one of all servicemembers who should never have had to serve inside of a culture that excuses sexual assault and dangerous, institutionalized misogyny.
We love to say support our troops, but if we allow the status quo in our armed forces to allow for any service member to be sexually assaulted and then shamed, we will continue to line the pockets of uniformed sexual predators and we will continue to find homeless veterans rotting in the streets of our cities. We pledge to give our lives in service to our country. We don’t pledge to be raped. We don’t pledge to be shamed. We don’t pledge to be so hollowed in pain that we lose hope that life could be okay for us. We never ordered that on the menu, but yet we continue, year after year, to see it on our plates.
We’ve been ordered many things In our careers, but it’s time we start placing our own orders. It’s time we order justice. It’s time we order a better future. It’s time for us to order how America can begin to support her troops. I’ve joined this movement as Movement Leader of the California Division because many survivors of MST have had it even worse than me. Many survivors are still homeless, still spending every last dollar they can find on drugs and alcohol just to escape from the pain of PTSD because they still don’t have access to the resources to heal from their grave trauma. Because we can heal. We can recover. We can re-enter to workforce and say yes to life again: we can learn to engage in behaviors that will set our painful lives onto a path of great joy and success. I know this because I am living this truth. I almost didn’t make it, but I found my way. Join us in our movement to bring health and prosperity into our wounded veteran community. Most of us fight service related battles at home, long after we last take off our uniforms. We need canabis in our healing to alleviate our PTSD-related anxiety and also to replace the epidemic of opioid dependence and abuse. We need resources for veterans who received retaliatory separations after their trauma, and currently have no access to the VA.
We need change. Together, we will continue to turn our pain into power. Will you join us?
-Pamela Heal, California Movement Leader