EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Editor's note: this story is part of a series featuring Victim Advocates across the 354th Fighter Wing. For the first part, click here.
"I want you to know what happens to girls like you."
These were some of the final words said to me minutes before I was shipped to Basic Military Training by an Army major, who sat me down and explained my likely fate in joining the military.
His warning fell flat to me, not just because my adrenaline was racing due to promising eight years of my life to the military, but because I had to appear strong as I said goodbye to my mother, who was originally reluctant at the thought of me joining the military in the first place.
Basic training and tech school proved to be some of the most positive months of my life. I finally felt my hard work was being recognized, and I loved the family mentality everyone seemed to have.
Then reality set in.
Two months into my first assignment is all it took for me to realize that the major had it right; he was my fortune teller and my cards read death.
What started out as a fun night out with two of my coworkers, turned into a night that would be burned into my memory forever.
The details of my assault confused me. It didn't fit the stigma of what an assault looked like according to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training I received.
It was 15 degrees outside the night of the attack. I wasn't wearing a mini skirt or high heels; I was in a sweater, blue jeans and boots. I was drinking, but far from drunk, and I was not flirting with the guy I had only seen once before, especially after I learned of his marriage situation. Then the assault happened and my positive experience and outlook changed completely.
What made things worse was the reaction of my support system (or so I thought) that caused much more damage to me mentally than what I had expected, especially from the SAPR training. I started going to mental health to talk to someone about it and they are obligated to tell the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, so I made a restricted report because I didn't want the entire base to know about it. After the reaction of my peers I didn't want to deal with that on a full scale level.
The nature of my job didn't help either. Working in Public Affairs, my job requires me to be exposed to many people throughout the base at any given time. We support many functions and are likely to be seen by many people, often without us knowing everyone in the crowd, and I didn't want everyone to be aware of my situation.
If I have a bad day or don't feel well, it doesn't matter, the show must go on, and I must perform my job as required. This means that many people know of me, they may not know my name but they have seen my face during events even if I don't see them.
This is how the man who raped me originally picked me out from the crowd, at a base event I had to take pictures of. This also meant he had a high chance of being at an event I would be at even after the attack, which made me feel like I was under a magnifying glass at all times, constantly having that feeling that someone was always watching me.
The fear of this alone caused me a lot of anxiety. I trusted no one.
I became a hermit and never left my room to avoid any chance of running into him. I developed an ulcer, suffered numerous sleepless nights, and gained about 20 pounds from both the stress of the situation and staying away from the gym in the off-chance I'd run into him.
I admit to having made plenty of mistakes in my life but I know I didn't deserve to become another statistic that night. It took me months of repairing my thought process, trying to recover from trust issues and avoid burying my problems in alcohol.
A big part of me wished I was drunk that night so that I couldn't remember it so well, but the downward spiral I took landed me in the hospital nine months after the incident due to alcohol poisoning.
I was a wreck, but the alcohol poisoning was my wake up call. I still had a good year left before my next assignment, but I knew living a lifestyle consumed by drinking and hating my life was a quick ticket out of the military, which I didn't want to happen.
I became a VA after a few months at my current base because I was tired of hearing people at SAPR training say things like, "It just doesn't really matter to me because I don't know anyone that it's happened to," knowing that they at least knew me, even if they didn't know my past.
I became a VA because no person should ever have to face a traumatic situation like I did on their own, feeling shunned from their coworkers who asked me questions like, "Why didn't you do this," or, "surely you could have done that," or feeling like crawling inside a shell every time you had to attend training on the subject.
Finally, I became a VA because sexual assault is still a problem in our military, despite the fact that we have increased our training from annually to quarterly.
I feel that four hours versus 100 doesn't fix the mindset of the people who are capable of sexual assault. In my opinion, the people who are willing to do that are just learning how to become a better chameleon sitting through the training that has still failed some of us.
The change starts from within and every time I hear about a sexual assault, all I think about is the fact that the victim is someone's daughter or son. If more people looked at sexual assault in that sense, maybe they would understand the impact of it.
Although I currently do not have children, I don't ever want to have the risk of my daughter being told, "I want you to know what happens to girls like you," if she wants to join the military. The same goes if I ever have a son, who will be raised to respect all people, not just a specific gender.
This is why I wear teal, because I have been through the very thing that I stand up against, and although I may not know what someone goes through in their situation, I know that even my worst enemy shouldn't have to endure months of internal torture like I did.
Being a VA has made me a stronger, better person, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to join the fight to support victims of sexual assault and combat the scourge that is sexual assault in the military.