Kelsey Harbor, Senior Director of Civic Engagement and Kansas City Movement Leader
Meet Kelsey Paige Harbor our Senior Director of Civic Engagement and Kansas City Movement Leader. Kelsey opens up what it is like to experience Military Sexual Trauma as a poolee leading up to a series of sexual violence she endured on active duty that when reported got her a retaliatory discharge that left her without access to medical benefits. Now, she is out to change the future for those who come next!
I grew up in a suburb right outside of Kansas City. I don’t remember much of my childhood outside of chaos, abuse and instability. I, in most ways, raised my brother for several years before we were taken from my mother and to navigate through the foster care system.
I made the decision in 2009 that I was going to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. I knew deep down this would change my life. I wanted that. I wanted to make the right decision. As an 18 year old girl fresh out of high school, enlisting in the service felt like the right decision.
From the minute I stepped foot into the recruiting office I began to experience a series of sexual violence which continued throughout my career.
The recruiter, who was 28 years old at the time asked me why I wanted to join. I explained my fears of failure to him and he told me he’d take care of me and help me in any way he could.
The two weeks to follow saw the recruiter tirelessly pursue and coherse me: he asked for sexual favors in exchange for his help with my drug waiver because I was a marijuana user. He told me that he would ensure that there wouldn’t be any obstacles in my way as long as I helped him with his problem.
He proceeded to tell me that I owed him this for what he did for me and that he knew I wanted it. I was so afraid of losing what I thought was supposed to save me. I let him continue. I didn’t stop him. I LET IT HAPPEN. Does that mean I was the one that was wrong? No. I was 18 to his 28. He behavior towards me was that of a pedophile: he used his age, experience, and position of power to manipulate me.
Yet I persisted. I made it. I completed what is said to be some of the hardest military training in the world. I was now a United States Marine. I felt as if everything I had already experienced was for this and I stuffed those emotions I felt from my first violation deep down. That first experience set the tone for the rest of my military service.
Next was Marine Combat Training (MCT), where an instructor caught me in corners of the squad bay alone and groped me several times. Usually it was a casual slap on the ass while walking past me. A female instructor told me that he was just being a male Marine. She normalized his behavior, telling me there was nothing to worry about. She, a senior female, made me feel as if maybe I was wrong. That my dear friends is the entire mentality I experienced the military: victim blaming.
Yet again I persisted, this time just barely. Most of my time in MCT I do not remember. My defense mechanism was to block it out. I survived. That was all that mattered. I survived.
Off to Supply School. I was top of my class. I was doing well. That all changed one day during a field day inspection when the Master Guns caught me alone in my room. I was asked countless times to bend over and check to make sure something was clean. Each and every time he pushed up against me from behind.
Shortly before graduation I was charged with military non-judicial punishment for underage drinking. I was restricted to my barracks room other than to go to class, chow, and to clean. I was taunted. I would wake up to bangs on my door, or window. I was made the butt of every joke whenever he was around. I can’t recall much from that time other than my lack of sleep and desperation to once again, just survive.
In March of 2010, I arrived in Okinawa and to Camp Hansen. I had just turned 19. In my own opinion, I was coping just fine. I was “only” wasted on weekends and still killing it at my job. I was recognized by our supply chief quite a few times in my first 2 months.
Towards the end of April 2010 in the “strip” of bars outside the front gate of the base. A fellow Marine and Co-Worker and I walked home. He and I had walked back to the barracks several times before that: both alone and in a group. On this night however, we walked down a quieter road and around to the back of the barracks near the smoke pit. We sat down to smoke a cigarette against what was I believe a utility building.
The next thing I remember was waking up to my dress pulled up and his fingers in side of me in motion to unbutton his jeans. When he saw me wake up he put his hand over my mouth and continued trying to unbutton his jeans. I pushed him off of me and ran down the hill and up to the top deck of our barracks building and into my room.
I remember explaining what had happened at least three times, to my roommates, my boyfriend and two NCOs. My boyfriend confronted him and fought him until he claimed that I was lying, that I wanted it.
My NCOs (non-commissioned officers) said they would handle it “in house” because if I made an official report no one would believe me and I’d look like a trouble maker. They “hazed” this Marine for a few days, which only entailed him cleaning the shop from top to bottom.
On May 10, 2010 I miscarried my baby (from my boyfriend at the time). The trauma and stress forced me to miscarry: I was beyond devastated. I again took up drinking, but this time more excessively. I was fully wasted at least 4 nights a week but still drinking the rest. I was offered spice (synthetic marijuana) twice. The second and last time I smoked it, my blood sugar dropped to the point I passed out in a hallway(on my floor of the barracks). I was carried to my room by NCOs. I couldn’t walk, talk or even move. I was aware of everything happening around me but couldn’t respond. The HM2 (Hospital Corpsman, Second Class Petty Officer) I had started dating was in the room, along with one of my best friends. The NCOs attempted to keep him in the room to keep him from calling an ambulance, claiming I would “be fine”. The HM2 insisted an ambulance be called, and I was rushed into the truck and given a shot. I was able to talk at this point, and was asked if I had taken anything. I told them I smoked spice. “I felt like I was dying...but it was spice?” I thought to myself. It didn’t feel like I was just on spice: my blood sugar was so low that I could have died. I believe that this night I was drugged, but have never had proof because they didn’t drug test me.
Two days later, I was called into the company office where I attempted to explain why this happened and why I did what I did. I explained I was stressed, paranoid, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t concentrate. I was dealing with a miscarriage and I was dealing with a sexual assault that I reported to my NCOs. I couldn’t cope and I needed help.
I was sent to a private women’s group for sexual assault and a few weeks after I was charged with commission of a serious offense by our brand new Commanding Officer. I was offered an opportunity to take an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge by rejecting my right to a lawyer and pleading guilty, or threatened with a dishonorable discharge if I decided to get a lawyer and fight. I was told with a bad discharge, I wouldn’t get any benefits and it would show on every background check forever. With an OTH discharge, it would be as if I had never existed or served in the military at all. I chose the OTH: how would I win a case without any evidence or anyone that would vouch for me? I felt hopeless.
Shortly after I was charged I was sent to a discharge group where we all discussed our feelings about our discharges and our plans after we were discharged.I talked with the group and the individual leading the group detail about everything that happened to me, only to find out later that the only thing that shows in my record was my miscarriage, my women’s group, and my charges.
I was on a plane to California by the second week in January 2011, but not after serving a week in the brig (military jail) and the remainder of my time on restriction being taunted and alienated. My entire life changed when I left Okinawa: I was 2 months pregnant, without benefits and dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal thoughts. I had to find a way to survive.
I was married by February 2011 to my children’s father. I gave birth in August and by August of the next year, 2012, I was 3 months pregnant. I didn’t want to become pregnant, but I often woke up to my ex husband on top of me in the 5 years that we were married.
I knew by April of 2019 that I needed help when I tried to overdose (after driving from Tallahassee to Albany, GA in the middle of the night) after my first time passing out drunk in a gas station parking lot.
I have always known there would be a reason as to why I have experienced what I have. I have been an advocate for many social issues but I didn’t know which one I should dedicate my life’s work to until I found the MST Movement.
I knew with everything inside of me I had found one of my life’s purposes. I’m dedicated to the movement for the future of our children and for current service members. I can’t imagine what I would feel if one of my children were to join the military today. Knowing they would be as motivated as I was when I joined, with that little sparkle in their eye, I wouldn’t know how to protect them. I won’t crush their dreams but I also can’t let them walk into this dream blindly.
This all needs to change. The military is supposed to be able to protect the country but doesn’t even attempt to protect the service members putting their lives on the line. It crushes someone in a different way to walk into what they thought was family, who they thought were their brothers, and were supposed to protect their life with theirs only to be violated in ways they couldn’t have even imagined.
I share a military service history with many veterans who know what it means to have the wholeness of their souls and spirit crushed, to only walk aimlessly around protecting the country’s ability to have freedom and justice but not have any of their own. We end up homeless, substance addicted, and forced into the drug or sex trade to merely survive. If there is one thing we know to do, it’s survive, but for how long? The rate of suicide among MST veterans is something every single person should be pushing to change.
We survive war, we survive assault and we survive disabilities from all but walk out of life on our own because of our internal pain and suffering.
We walk around suffocating from the pressure to continue to live life as if nothing happened.
My first long deep and fulfilling breath, a breath I didn’t regret taking, a breath I took feeling happy to be alive instead of hopelessness, was when I was asked to help the MST Movement. I breathe for change and this change is only the start for us, for me and for every person facing injustice from not only our military but from our entire government.