Where is the Service Ribbon for MST Survivors?

Updated: Feb 15, 2020

There are no campaign ribbons or medals for Military Sexual Trauma (MST) warriors & survivors. It's a battle that is still going, but little is heard about in the civilian sectors. Attempts to apply a "hush factor" in the ranks are ongoing as you read this. In fact, it is probable that you will find no reference to MST in any claim at the Veteran's Administration, unless it is mentioned by the service member themselves. Although many service members have service connected benefits directly or indirectly related to MST, the VA will say that in and of itself, IT is not a disabling condition - it is an event that could lead to a disabling condition. It is lumped under PTSD, which in some sense is also the result of events that lead to PTSD. It's almost like a merry go round that isn't so merry. Never mind that many survivors also suffer from physical injuries from assaults, those will fall under another category of service connection as long as there are medical records to support it. Even if there was a ribbon, medal, or badge, it would not be worn proudly because with MST, comes a lot of mixed emotions that the survivor must live with forever.

I created my own service ribbon in order to take pride in standing up and using my voice to create change.

The following is a brief of only one story, my story. But just brief. A full account can be long and involved, and it can be traumatic to always relive. However, I have heard and read thousands of stories from those who have experienced MST. Stories run the gamut from crude jokes and harassment or gender discrimination, sexual harassment & bullying, inappropriate behaviors in the workplace, all the way to sexual assaults and abuses, rapes, and extremely egregious gang rapes and physical beatings. Even worse, hearing how some of these incidents/stories/complaints were reported and dismissed, brushed under rugs of commands all over the United States and overseas, or just never reported for fear of retaliation, shame, embarrassment, or worse - being called a liar or not believed, is mindblowing. A huge majority are/were never reported due to this common knowledge of what happens when reported. The unwritten laws of military commands. Women (and men) have had dishonorable discharges due to "gaslighting" of the military caliber where they are made to seem suddenly unfit for duty, and possibly removed or moved to another duty to quiet the rumors. The perpetrators are protected, and in some cases, continue to harass. I have received so much sisterly support and guidance by sharing my experience that I finally decided to share my story publicly...and I have urged others to do the same.

I consider myself an old soul. I make friends easily. I am humorous. I am giving. I am caring. I am nurturing. I don't think I am an introvert, but I have periods of time that one would think that I am hiding in a cave, and it has felt like it.

Unfortunately, I've carried the burden of a hapless image of myself most of my adult life now; pouring into everything I've done for the past 30 or so years. Why am I so hard on myself? Why am I easy going with some things, and so hard on other things? What is the nature of this beast that decides for me? Why was I chosen for depression? Years later, I have come to my own conclusions that I am meant to help others by sharing my experiences. My experiences with an eating disorder. My experience with depression. My experience with infertility. And now, admitting to the masses, my experience with MST. Some days or weeks are so tough, and I feel so alone, but it is so empowering when someone tells me that my honesty helped them realize they aren't alone.

In October 2017, I attended a weekend writing retreat at The Gaia House, sponsored by Veteran Womens' Voices.

On one of the days, we were given the prompt "Things we carried with us". To each, this is unique and to each it was for sure. We spent much of one day in silence, no distractions. We were at the top of a mountain yoga retreat, in Nevada City, overlooking the lush forests of the Yuba River canyon. It was a gorgeous early fall weekend. I was happily picking fresh lavender and inhaling deeply, relaxing, clearing my mind in preparation for the writing. We had the whole house to ourselves. We meditated, we napped, we ate good food, and most importantly we bonded and made new friends. I hadn't done much major journaling for many decades, so I was looking forward to getting some new things out, things that nobody else knew about, things that I had never talked about. I knew that this group was safe and I would be believed and so I was eager, nervous, and ready to write.

I sat on one of the couches at the retreat, got comfy. There were two other gals in the room. One was fussing with everything, trying to get comfortable, I could sense she had something important to say. The other was feverishly writing away. I got up to get some hot tea, then sat back down and started to write my rough draft.

PROMPT: "Things we carried with us"

I was stationed on a Navy ship from 1991-1993 with 1000+ other sailors, yet there were many times I felt so alone. {I remember writing these exact words in a journal about 25 years ago. I used to write in a journal on the ship. I wish I still had those entries}. Even back then I knew, I knew something wasn't right with me anymore because it was just bottled up. I felt isolated at times and wary of some people on the ship. It may not have appeared that way, but inside my mind it was that way.

Prior to these ship years, from 1989 - 1993, while stationed on Adak Island, I drank along with many others as it helped me cope with the Navy life, the isolated duty, the loneliness. In this culture, as a general observance, drinking, smoking, and unprotected sex were happenings. I hung out with Marines while stationed on Adak Island, Marines who drank a lot. Most of them were on Antabuse for alcohol related incidents (Antabuse was used to prohibit them from using alcohol, but they drank anyway. They drank through the barfing heaves, and continued to drink. They were Marines dammit.) I hung out with some Seabees. On the island, we drank every night, or at least it seemed.

One particular night, I drank, and left the bar with "friends". Went back to their barracks to hang out to listen to music or play cards, and the end result was being raped by one of my Seabee cohorts. Someone that I knew, someone that I didn't distrust. I had met him while I was on duty and would see him out at the bars. We had many friends in common.

I remember telling him NO over and over, but he overpowered me until I just couldn't fight physically and then he penetrated me and I just zoned out. I blamed myself, I chalked it up to being drunk, weak, careless, and for getting in that situation in the first place. I didn't report it, as I figured no one would believe me because I went to his room willingly. The next day I told some Marines and they confronted him the good old boy old fashioned way, and they told me he wouldn't bother me again. I would carry this with me for the next 25 years. My secret. Although I have shared openly about being raped, but never the details, I never knew that this was an issue happening in the military. I thought I was an isolated case. I was rethinking this whole Navy career thing. So this is the story I shared with my writing group, what I carried with me, but it isn't the only one for me during the Navy. During this writing exercise, I had an odd memory come to me. Lots of details flooded in. (There was another incident prior to this one I wrote about, in 1989 - San Diego in where an unknown male broke into my barracks at night through a window and sexually assaulted me while I was sleeping. I woke up screaming and he escaped out the window. It was reported to the watch, yet nothing was done, except the window got fixed). In my naivete, I thought that this is what happens. Nothing. When the second incident happened, deep in my heart I felt that if I reported it, nothing would be done.

I met a sober sailor (sort of an anomaly) from a Seabee detachment and fell pretty deeply for him. I put the incidents behind me, and didn't drink for what seemed about a year. I turned 21 sober. When he was ordered to deploy, I was heartbroken. I took leave for 30 days and when I returned Marines and Seabees were being deployed to Desert Storm. It was an uncertain time to be in the military. I was back to drinking every night, going to work hungover, ready to drink again at Liberty Call.

I spent the remainder of my Navy years onboard the ship, just drinking to cope. Then, a time when the Navy was downsizing and offering early outs. I was extremely unhappy, so I enthusiastically requested it, and it was approved. I couldn't wait to leave. I am proud that I served, but the culture must change because too many women and men have endured too many assaults, suffered in silence, or dealt with harassment, and condescending treatment after reporting.

When I joined the civilian world again, I found it difficult to cope. Nightlife was filled with men who were kind of pigs, to be honest. I was still lonely. I couldn't really put my finger on it, but after a coworker took me up in his airplane for a fun flight around the mountains (I secretly wished that plane would crash so I could die and end the pain). Then, calling in sick for three days, laying in bed suicidal, I asked a friend for a name of her therapist. I started to get help, referred to a psychiatrist, and my journey with diagnosed depression began.

The journey continues. In 2016, reporting a coworker for harrassment, then being treated like I was suddenly unfit for my job, treated like crap for 12 months by those that should have had my back, I left the job after 10 years. One of the worst times of my life. The barrage of Me Too's in late 2017, and it hits me front and center. I am hearing too many military Me Too stories. The military is a beast of its own. My own traumas propelled me to form a FB group for Women Veterans who have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST) as a place of sisterhood, support, guidance, resources, and comraderie. I am hearing stories similar to mine and then some. The stories are mind blowing. There is a movement happening with all women that is amazing. We will not be silenced or brushed under the proverbial rug anymore.

The group is called Women Veteran Warriors and Survivors.

My daughter is my inspiration. Since she was born, I have rethought my entire responsibility as a woman. I am her role model. I am here to teach her how to use her voice, speak her opinion, fight for what she believes, how to say NO and how to say YES when she wants to.

While there is no ribbon awarded for Military Sexual Trauma. If there was, statistics say that 1 in 4 female veterans would have one. We are all strong, we all have a story.

Thank you Veteran Womens' Voices for helping my story make it to print.

Space is available to any and all who want to share their story or experience. I am compiling Women Veteran MST stories to publish here. If you need help or aren't sure how to start, and those that would like to share their story (completely anonymously, we will not share names, or publicly) you can EMAIL to SurvivorsMST@gmail.com

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