The first time I ever heard the term military sexual trauma was when I was living with my future husband in Olympia, Washington in 2006. He was active duty Air Force stationed at McChord Air Force Base. I was a traditional National Guardsman. I had just transferred from a combat communications squadron in 2005 to a civil engineering squadron and was preparing to go to technical school for Emergency Management/Readiness at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The move to Washington was only temporary but nonetheless an important turning point in my life as a soldier.
I was home alone one day looking for temporary work on-line when I came across the story of Army Specialist Suzanne Swift who was stationed at Fort Lewis, the sister base to McChord Air Force Base (now referred to as Joint Base Lewis-McChord). I learned from the local news that Suzanne was charged with AWOL for refusing to go back to Iraq with three supervisors who sexually harassed her the last time she was there. Like most she probably feared more of the same and wanted to prevent a sexual assault or rape, especially in Iraq. You can’t call 911 in another country; military members are completely dependent on those in their Chain of Command. This was the first time that I had faced this subject after years of burying it in an attempt to suck it up and move on. Suzanne’s story and courage to come forward and talk about some of the issues that soldier’s face was my call to action. I learned for the first time that the Department of Veteran Affairs treats soldiers who have PTSD from military sexual trauma.
I always thought that I was just really unfortunate in my struggles with sexual assault in the military but would later come to realize that I was one of tens of thousands in the military facing the same issues. Suzanne’s story and learning the Department of Veteran Affairs would help me was the trigger to finally ask for help. After learning about Suzanne’s situation there really was no turning back for me. I either had to get help or I was going to fall apart. I felt like I was beginning to crumble. I was in a committed relationship for the first time since being sexually assaulted and it was at this time that I realized just how distrustful and damaged that I was. I would not have been able to stay in the relationship without some outside professional help. I was having a hard time being in a relationship but I didn’t know why and I wanted to fix it so that I could have a relationship with the man who I would later marry. An investment in me would be an investment in us.
I wasn’t quite sure how to access the VA but I was utilizing the services of the Tacoma Vet Center to help me find some work. One day while I was in the office looking through resume books, I found a business card with the name of a woman who called herself a military sexual trauma counselor. It felt like a sign. I did not hesitate and contacted the woman shortly after to see if we could talk about what was going on with me after I heard about Suzanne Swift. It wasn’t long before I was seeing this woman regularly at the same Vet Center I had utilized to find work. She too worked in the communications-electronics maintenance career field while serving in the Air Force. We not only had a lot in common but she was the one to help validate my struggles with what would later become a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I was referred to a psychiatrist for an evaluation at the American Lake Veterans Administration where I was positively diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of military sexual trauma. I was prescribed an anti-depressant to help temper the mood swings, anxiety, and depression that was beginning to form. It was here in Washington I found validation from professionals who understood the issue all too well (unlike the American public) because they were dealing with the aftermath of the invisible war in the military. It was here that I learned that what I went through was considered traumatic events and that the symptoms I was experiencing were all indicative of PTSD. It felt good to finally have a name for my condition.
I was desperate when I reached out for help in Washington after learning about Suzanne’s story. I wasn’t thinking about how it would impact the future of my career. I just wanted to get better for me and my new relationship. I would later learn that dealing with the Post Traumatic Stress entailed more then a few visits at the Vet Center and some medication. I learned over the next few years that in order to deal with the problems, we needed to go deep. I was still holding onto my military career while simultaneously trying to work through the issues I had buried for years. It was this series of events that would eventually lead to the end of my career. Eventually I reported on a yearly squadron medical questionnaire that I was receiving help for military sexual trauma at the Department of Veteran Affairs and was currently taking an anti-depressant called Prozac.
In the end it doesn’t even matter. The same military career that I had sacrificed so much for no longer meant anything if I wasn’t healthy enough to be in a long term committed relationship with the man I love. After reporting the counseling for PTSD, I was immediately red flagged and asked to leave the base. I could not return to my full-time position or National Guard weekends until I had a note from a doctor giving me permission to work. I attempted to save my career initially and things were looking good until our squadron was tasked to deploy to Iraq. It was at this time that the professionals I was working with said they could not sign off on me being deployed to Iraq or anywhere for that matter, despite my objections. I was still in denial about how the sexual assaults and retaliation had impacted me but the professionals were not. I wanted to go to Iraq so that I could deploy because I knew it would be beneficial to my career and future promotions. But deep down inside I hoped I would die from a glorious death in the line of fire.
Thanks to Suzanne Swift and the help that I have received for over ten years now I no longer feel like I want to die daily. Instead I finally want to live and appreciate every single precious moment in life. Although I am sad that my career was ended after fifteen years of service, I have come to realize that everything happens for a reason. I would not have come this far if I was still serving in the military. After losing my career, I was free to seek out the services that would help me pull out of the worst of the PTSD without any consequences. I would not have been able to face the trauma head on like I did if not for the medical retirement. As I get healthier and the memories of the trauma begin to fade I think about Suzanne Swift and what she did for me. Suzanne Swift helped save my life. She helped me see that I wasn’t the only one and validated that military sexual assault does in fact cause Post Traumatic Stress. Her story helped me and I hope my story helps you. Thanks to her, I can pay it forward.
The Women’s War
Female Soldiers Treated ‘Lower Than Dirt’
From Victim To Accused Army Deserter
Army Spc Suzanne Swift, Iraq vet and sexual assault victim, supporters rally at Ft Lewis
U.S. soldier goes AWOL — alleges sexual harassment / Enemy lines: She deserted the Army just before her 2nd tour in Iraq, not because of the war, she says, but because her superiors preyed on her
Spc. Suzanne Swift Signs Statement with Military After Harassment Claim, AWOL Status Lead to Court-Martial
Army Investigation into Sexual Harassment Charges by Specialist Suzanne Swift Ended in July, Attorney Says Military “Did Not Do Diligent Investigation”
Mother of Suzanne Swift, Army War Resister
Catching up with military resister Suzanne Swift