Military sex assault victims face agonizing choice
“Everything okay?” a colleague asks.
“It’s fine,” she says, and the lying is underway.
Lie after lie: This has been her life since coming home last year from Afghanistan - the daily maintenance of a thousand little fictions to keep everyone from finding out what happened over there.
The 27-year-old Navy veteran, who wants to be identified by only her middle name, Diana, lies to people from her unit, saying she came home early because she had a lump in her breast.
She lies to her parents, her friends and her boyfriend, who knows some of the story but not all of it.
She lies because she thinks she has to, because of the legal document she signed during her fourth month at Bagram air base, after she sneaked over to the hospital and asked to see the person who handles sexual assaults, after a nurse took Polaroid photos of bruises on her neck and scratches on her back, collected swabs and hair samples and put them in a brown paper bag.
After that, she was handed Defense Department Form 2910 and told she had two choices for reporting rape.
She could file an unrestricted report, in which both she and the alleged offender, who Diana said was her boss, would be named and that would launch an investigation.
Or she could file what is called a restricted report to preserve her anonymity. No names. No investigation, either. No one would know except doctors and a few specified others who did not include family, friends or colleagues. The evidence would be destroyed after one year.
As Diana understood it in the moment, it was a promise that the U.S. military was making to her and she was making to the U.S. military: This will be our secret.
The problem of sexual assault in the military is well known. What is less well understood is the extent to which the Pentagon has officially embraced secrecy and anonymity as a means of dealing with the problem, which has been especially rampant during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A recent Department of Veterans Affairs survey found that one in four women deployed to those wars said they experienced sexual assault, defined as any unwanted contact from groping to rape.
At the same time, at least 5,274 restricted reports of sexual assault have been filed since Congress first established the option in 2005, according to Pentagon figures. Restricted reports have also made up an ever-larger percentage of the total sexual assault reports filed each year, increasing from 14 percent of the total in 2005 to nearly 25 percent in 2012.
Pentagon officials cite those rising numbers as a success, saying that victims might not have filed reports at all or sought medical help without the option of complete anonymity.
Officials also note that victims can change their restricted report to an unrestricted one at any time, although that option has been limited because of the provision that any evidence that might have been collected with restricted reports, such as from a rape kit exam, would be destroyed after one year.
In May 2013, the Pentagon changed that to five years and began requiring that the restricted reports be kept for the same duration. The reports were also being destroyed after one year because of what Pentagon officials said was a concern for victims’ privacy, which is the rationale behind the restricted reporting option.
“We knew there were people not reporting because they did not want an investigation, who wanted to remain a little bit hidden, wanted to keep it personal, but also wanted access to medical care,” said Catherine Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “So restricted reporting opens the door for them to start healing while maintaining their privacy.”
That is how the Pentagon sees it.
But Diana sees it differently. In the 15 months since she chose the restricted reporting option, she has come to see how the decision has defined her life in ways that she never imagined, a life she can now divide by two dates.
July 5, 2012: “Ready to go,” she had written on her Pre-deployment Psych Survey.
Dec. 19, 2012: “I elect Restricted Reporting and have decided to confidentially report that I am a victim of sexual assault,” read the box she initialed on the form.
Fifteen months later, in a suburb of a Southern state, Diana’s boyfriend is holding a black-and-white photograph against the wall of their living room.
“How high do you want this?” he asks.
He deployed with her and knows what happened only in general terms.
“That’s good,” says Diana, glancing over from the couch, where she is studying for a nursing exam at the end of the month.
Now the boyfriend is hammering, not realizing that the sight of tools, which he often leaves on the kitchen counter, makes her anxious. He doesn’t know exactly why she sleeps so late or why she stopped running, which she tells him is because she lost her iPod.
“It’s constant,” she says later, referring to the necessary evasions.
She is driving to pick up her new identification card at a veterans’ hospital, where there are always things to avoid. She parks on the top floor of the garage because she doesn’t like confined spaces. She almost always wears a baseball cap pulled snug over her hair in case she runs into anyone from her unit.
While veterans often cluster in the hallways and talk, she never does that, walking quickly without saying anything. In the elevator, she is quiet when an elderly man and a woman get on, and now, as the doors are shutting and a middle-aged man slips in, she stares at the floor.
He has dark hair and a buzz cut, and he stands right next to Diana, who is sweating visibly. She doesn’t look at him. She exhales. Circles of sweat are forming on her shirt.
“All right,” she whispers to herself and exhales again.
She was never a nervous person, never one to avoid people. She had what she considered a solid middle-class upbringing in a family she loved. She traveled abroad alone. She enlisted in the Navy for the college money and what she imagined would be adventure. She moved up in rank relatively quickly and began aiming for an elite job with a Special Operations unit, doing 13-mile training runs. When her support unit got orders to deploy to Afghanistan, she was thrilled.
“Ready to go,” she had written on her psych survey.
At Bagram, she honed her tactics for dealing with the testosterone-driven world of the military at war.
When she went running, she wore baggy sweats and borrowed a 9mm. When possible, she locked doors behind her. She developed rules for handling crude comments.
If a lower-ranking sailor told her to stop eating a banana because he was getting aroused, for instance, she would suggest that he tone it down and laugh enough to convey that she was “not an uptight old lady.”
If a higher-ranking guy was discussing the anatomical features of his ideal prostitute, she would avoid any expression of disapproval while finding a believable excuse to leave the room.
“No one wants to work with a woman you can’t be yourself around because you think she’s going to report you,” she explained. “If you were the prude, you wouldn’t get to go to any of the cool outposts, the exciting places.”
She got the interview for the Special Operations job. Except as all that was happening, she was running out of ways to handle her boss.
It had started with what she thought was a normal concern for her well-being. How are you doing, he would write her in emails, how are you holding up. She thought nothing of it; he was married with children. Then came the emails about her smile, and soon her 6-foot-tall, slightly paunchy middle-aged boss was following her around so constantly that she became anxious. He started asking her why she was ignoring him, she said, and why she didn’t seem to like him.
Then one night she was alone in her workshop. It had a coded cipher lock on the door, but now someone was coming in. She cursed herself. Of course her boss had the code.
She remembers him hitting the back of her head first. She tried to scream, but then a hand was on her throat. Then a hand was crushing the left side of her face, her jaw and her mouth. Then she was staring at hammers and drills hanging on the wall, out of reach.
He left. She stayed a while because maybe he was still by the door. Then she went back to her room. It was December, cold and snowing, and she remembers how quiet everything was outside. Fresh snow covered her path. She remembers the sound of her own steps and trying not to slip. She had to be careful.
She tries to be careful. She sits in the corner of a cafe so her back is protected and she can scan faces every few minutes. The baseball cap is pulled down. She is working through practice questions for the nursing exam.
“Question 22,” she says at one point, reading from a section on mental illness. “ ‘When dealing with PTSD, why are antidepressants best for a person who is continually experiencing the event?’ The answer is B, ‘Because it makes you numb.’ “
She has never taken antidepressants, she says.
She moves on to another question. “ ‘A client who is suspected of PTSD should also be suspected of what? A, an eating disorder; B, schizophrenia; C, suicide. . . .’ The answer is C, suicide.”
She was never suicidal, either, Diana says. Instead, she was always thinking about surviving - not in an emotional sense, but physically, starting with how she would survive her deployment without being assaulted again.
Every morning, she had to face her boss at muster, where he called her name like normal and she tried to answer like normal even though she hadn’t slept or eaten and people were starting to go out of their way to tell her she looked horrible.
After a few days, she became terrified about diseases and sneaked over to the emergency room at Bagram’s main hospital during her lunch break. Her boss absolutely could not know she was there.
She asked to see the person who handled sexual assaults. It was the first time she said the phrase out loud. She felt the people in the emergency room staring. An attendant quickly ushered her into a special exam room and as he left told her that he was locking the door, which she could unlock from the inside.
An hour passed before the nurse arrived with a little white box that Diana understood was the rape kit and asked her to undress. After the exam - after the nurse took the Polaroid photos of bruises on her neck and scratches on her back, after she drew blood, plucked hairs, scraped under Diana’s fingernails and took the swab - the sexual assault person came in.
She seemed nervous to Diana, saying “I’m so sorry” over and over and handed her Form 2910 and a pen. She explained that there were two choices for reporting rape.
Diana was still sitting on the gurney. Nearly two hours had passed, and she knew she had to get back to work. Her boss would be looking for her. She had to get out of there.
Option one was unrestricted reporting - “Reporting a Crime Which Is Investigated,” as the form read. Diana would be named. Her boss would be named. Her chain of command would be notified. An investigation would be launched, and there was the possibility of a military trial. The full range of victim protection would be available.
Option two was restricted reporting - “Confidentially Reporting a Crime Which Is Not Investigated,” the heading on the form read. Diana could receive medical treatment, “but law enforcement and my command will NOT be notified,” the form read. “My report will NOT trigger an investigation; therefore no action will be taken against the offender(s) as the result of my report.”
There was a blur of nine provisions sprawled across two pages. No one could know except people listed on the next page, said one. Another said that evidence would be destroyed after one year and “no longer available for any future investigation or prosecution efforts” unless the victim changed to an unrestricted report during that time. Another said, “I understand that if I talk about my sexual assault to anyone other than those under the ‘Restricted Reporting’ option . . . it may be reported to my command and law enforcement which could lead to an investigation.” The last provision was that if she didn’t choose a reporting option “at this time,” her commander and investigators would be notified.
Diana stared at those words. The young woman was waiting. The nurse was filling out forms, and Diana watched her put the rape kit in a brown paper bag, staple it and drop it into a desk drawer next to some Tootsie Pops. She remembers a rush of thoughts:
No one would believe her. The possibility of a trial, much less a conviction, was remote. Her family would be dragged into it. Her career in the military, the elite job - all of that would be over. She had to get out of there.
So she started signing. She was so nervous that at first she signed the wrong box, then scratched it out and signed her initials next to the words “Restricted Reporting.” Yes to anonymity, yes to secrecy, yes to whatever else it said.
She left the hospital with a copy of the form and went straight back to her room. She had to hide it. She stuck it on a shelf with a stack of other papers, between a copy of Marie Claire and a fitness magazine her dad had sent.
She hides it now in the black file box in the spare closet of the spare bedroom where she also keeps her old uniforms, medals, certificates, promotion papers and every other reminder of who she was, all of it in closed boxes behind closed doors.
The rest of the house is half-empty. The walls are mostly blank except for the black-and- white pictures of national parks that her boyfriend is hammering up and a few snapshots of Diana’s smiling friends, who have no idea what happened.
This is where she hides herself most of the time, too, this sunny home on a quiet suburban street where she avoids running, avoids get-togethers and avoids getting to know her neighbors except when she searches the local sex-offender registry.
She is studying when her boyfriend’s dad comes in. He knows she was in the Navy with his son but nothing else.
“How are you doing?” Diana asks.
“Fabulous!” he says and goes to look for food in the kitchen.
“I made some chicken, but it’s not ready yet,” Diana calls to him.
“That’s okay - how are you?” the dad yells.
“Great!” she says.
The first lie was something like that. It happened right after she hid the form in the magazines, when her boss knocked on the door and said he was writing her up for being late to work. A few minutes after that, she was sitting in a room with her chain of command, several middle-aged men, all Navy chiefs, who wanted to know why she was late for work.
Her boss wasn’t there. So she told them what she wasn’t supposed to tell them according to her understanding of the form she had just signed. She said that she had filed a restricted report, and they knew instantly what that meant. It meant they couldn’t ask any questions. They couldn’t know who did it. And they couldn’t know who she was.
The chiefs looked at Diana, who thought they looked like fathers alone with a teenage daughter they would never understand. One looked away, she recalled. One asked if she was okay. One asked if she felt safe.
She told them that she felt fine, and that was the first lie.
One asked if she wanted to see a mental health counselor and walked with her to that office. When she came out, she said, her boss was standing nearby. And as the days went on, he kept watching her, she said, and she became more nervous, more angry and felt more out of control, until finally she went to her chief’s office, handed over her weapon and asked to go home.
The authorization letter from the Air Force colonel ordered that she was to be evacuated to the United States using “the quickest means available,” which turned out to be a civilian flight with a layover in Doha, Qatar.
So the next day she was in Doha, at a U.S. military base, where she had no idea about where she was supposed to go or how she was supposed to explain why she was there.
At the front gates, some women who barely spoke English pointed her to another building, where someone told her to go to another building that was a mile away.
It was getting dark, and Diana started walking, hauling her backpack and rolling bag across the base. There were middle-aged men all over the place. She was lost.
Then a woman pulled up in a car beside her and asked why she was wandering around alone. She seemed genuinely concerned. Diana thought she was about her mother’s age and for the first time felt the urge to say everything that had happened.
But she couldn’t do that. Instead, Diana told the woman that she was going home “for medical,” and that was the second lie.
The woman drove her to the building to get her room assignment, which turned out to be a hangar-like space with dozens of empty bunk beds. It was the place set aside for women, but since there weren’t any, Diana stayed there alone.
She Skyped that night with a friend, chatting about how everyone was, but not telling him how she was, or where she was, or that she was coming home.
“I understand that I can confidentially receive medical treatment” was another provision that Diana had initialed on the restricted report, and the day after she arrived in the United States, she started seeing doctors.
“The Patient is a 26-year old female,” one of them wrote. “History of head injury, ‘hit on back of head 8 weeks ago - sexual assault.’ Dizziness worse with quick movement. ... Feeling restless, feeling nervous, anxiety with persistent worry, with anticipation of misfortune to self or others, with choking or smothering sensations . . . fear, loneliness . . . nightmares, screaming in the middle of the night . . . social withdrawal, loss of interest in friends and family, apathy, feeling demoralized, feeling helpless.”
She was sent to a 28-day program at a private psychiatric hospital in a Western state, where counselors asked her to describe the sexual assault over and over, in increasingly minute detail, a type of therapy that was supposed to help her gain emotional control over the event. She remembers a class on “hopes and dreams” and “who you are” and crying uncontrollably at times and in the midst of this getting a call from the military recruiter, who wanted to know if she was still interested in the elite job with Special Operations.
Yes, she said, yes, definitely still interested. She started working out again at a gym, although doctors limited that to one visit a day because they felt she was overexerting herself.
After the 28-day program, she was sent to a military base in California and the bureaucratic limbo known as “Med Hold,” where the military futures of sick and disabled service members are determined. “Triggers all the time” is how she remembered that time, because there were middle-aged men in buzz cuts and uniforms everywhere.
March 18, 2013: “Pt does not like living in” California, a doctor wrote. “She has no supports, and hasn’t told family about attack . . . avoiding thinking of incident.”
The recruiter arrived for the interview. Diana put on her old uniform. She would pull herself together.
They met in an office. Her six-inch-thick medical file was on a desk between them. She hadn’t realized it when she signed the restricted report, but the recruiter was allowed to know everything, because he had to assess her fitness for duty. Such officials were among the “exceptions to restricted reporting” listed on the form.
So he knew about the assault, she realized.
“We see you have dealt with MST,” she remembered him saying, using Pentagon jargon for military sexual trauma. He reminded her that the work involved being the only woman with small groups of men in remote locations. He wanted to know if she would be able to handle that.
Diana knew that one of the next steps was a lie detector test, so she told him no, she probably wouldn’t be comfortable with that, and he told her that the job was a “no-go.”
April 22: “Patient reported it is more painful to deal with the aftermath and how she was treated rather than the assault itself.”
She had to go to group therapy in California with three dozen or so women, all there to deal with episodes of sexual harassment or sexual assault. At one point, the group had to sit through a lecture from a Navy captain, a man, Diana noted, about preventing rape. At another point, there was a discussion about reporting rape, and it became clear that most of the women had filed restricted reports, if they had said anything at all.
The group included everyone from pilots to enlisted sailors with administrative jobs, some of whom struck Diana as so sharp and accomplished that she thought “that could be the next commander,” except that they were here.
“Just crumbling,” Diana recalled. “It was like watching yourself.”
April 30: “No-show for appointment,” the group therapy leader wrote.
By May, Diana was sure that she wanted to leave the Navy. She could not possibly go back to her unit, where everyone either thought she left early because she had a lump in her breast, which is what she had told them, or that she was pregnant, which is what she figured most of them assumed.
June 3: “She described her mood as ‘okay,’ “ a psychiatrist wrote, noting that she was becoming more withdrawn.
Several months later: “You are being referred out of the military due to a mental disorder that you developed after you were the victim of a military sexual assault “ began the letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Her military career was officially over.
She left California, bought a house, moved in with her boyfriend, stowed away everything military in the spare closet and ripped into little pieces all the descriptions of the assault she had written, throwing them away in different garbage cans.
A civilian now, she started studying for her nursing degree and waiting tables and realizing how much work it would be to keep her secret.
Her dad was always asking how she could afford such a nice house on a waiter’s wages, since he didn’t know about her disability checks.
Her mom wanted to know why she was always running to some appointment or other. “It’s just a meeting,” Diana would say, but then her mom would want to know what kind of meeting, and since she couldn’t say she was seeing a neurologist about the numbness in her left shoulder from being crushed, or a therapist about panic attacks, she would tell her it was some bureaucratic Navy thing, and her mom believed her.
Her friends wanted to know why she was so skinny.
“Oh, I’m just eating healthier,” Diana would tell them.
Her boyfriend wanted to wake up early and go to Home Depot.
She couldn’t tell him that she didn’t want to go because she was assaulted in a room with tools all over the place, so she would just say she was tired, which wasn’t a lie.
December came and went, and with it any meaningful possibility that she could change her restricted report to an unrestricted one, since by that time - a year after she signed the form - the military was also supposed to have destroyed all the evidence.
Case forever closed, and now, on a sunny afternoon in March, Diana is describing herself as a young woman who says she feels old; a veteran who allows herself two medications, one for vertigo and a muscle relaxer for the pain on the left side of her jaw, shoulder and hip; a person who wakes up sweating and terrified from nightmares she can’t remember.
She is also a person who felt compelled one day to write a letter to the wife of her boss. The letter said that your husband is a monster and that it is not your fault for marrying a monster.
She is also the person who never sent the letter, because she can’t.
She is sitting in the corner of the cafe, baseball cap pulled down, logging onto Facebook, where she and the women from the therapy group in California have a confidential page they call “the sisterhood.”
The idea is to have one place where they can express themselves. But what they mostly do is write posts about anything other than what happened.
“This is her baby,” Diana says, pointing to a photo of a little girl in pink. “This girl lives in Guam now,” she says, pointing to a photo of a woman on a beach saying hello. “This girl is still in,” she says, pointing to a woman smiling above some quote about encouragement.
She closes her computer, and before she heads to work at the restaurant, she considers the moment when she signed Form 2910, which in so many ways led to this moment. She wonders if she made the right choice.
She wonders whether her boss has assaulted other women and whether those women filed restricted reports. She thinks about what circumstances might have led her to come forward publicly with an unrestricted report.
“Maybe if I was not on deployment,” she says, beginning a train of thought she’s been over and over before. “Maybe if I was not in a combat zone and maybe if I didn’t see a future in the military, and if I didn’t fear retribution. If I didn’t fear gossip and rumors or the fact that the trial would be lengthy and the punishment wouldn’t fit the crime because it never does. Maybe if my family didn’t have to find out and get dragged into it. There are a lot of things. Those are the basics.”
There is another train of thought, too, one that begins with who she was before any of this happened: an adventurous young woman excited for a career in the Navy and on the cusp of a job that would have taken her into Afghan villages and maybe around the world.
It ends with who she is now: a young woman nobody really knows, including, at times, herself.
“I don’t plan for the future as much as I used to, which is weird . . . ,” she says. “It’s almost like you’re no longer flourishing, you’re just surviving.”
All of which makes her think that maybe she did make the wrong decision.
Maybe her life would have been better if she had never gone to the emergency room, if she had never signed the restricted report, if she had never said anything at all.
But she did go, and she did sign, and now it is time for work.
It is Friday, and the restaurant is crowded with middle-aged men, paunchy and drinking, a number of whom resemble her old boss. She is trying to avoid eye contact and to remember to breathe when an elderly man and woman arrive who always ask for Diana, ever since the chef told them that she was in the Navy, which she wishes he hadn’t.
They had asked her where she was stationed, and she had told them California, and they had asked if she was on a ship, and she had said no, and then they had gotten around to asking if she had gone to Afghanistan, and she had said yes and left it at that.
Now they are back, and she walks over to the hostess and begs her not to seat the couple in her section. She doesn’t want to have to answer any more questions. For the rest of the night, she wants to avoid conversations, to be as quiet as possible, which for her is like telling the truth.
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