Through a survivor's eyes

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- Why don't you like sleepovers anymore?" asked a curious girl in my pre-teen dance class.

This was a question I was asked frequently, so I gave the response most people wanted to hear, that I don't like being away from home.

When I was 16, I offended people when I quickly jerked away and almost bolted out of rooms when they tried to hug me. My friends and relatives would give a similar response to explain my reaction, saying I was not a touchy-feely person. They were all guessing, but none of them knew the real reason.

How could they when I hid it from even myself?

The terrible reality is I had been sexually assaulted by a friend while attending a sleepover as a young girl. As a teenager, I was sexually assaulted multiple times in addition to continuous sexual harassment well into my mid-teens.

Despite the pain and confusion I was experiencing, I continued accepting the excuses made for me. I continued to feel the way I was expected to.

I didn't have the resources or knowledge to face the truth.

As time went on and I traveled away from home for the first time, I discovered I was not homesick as expected. Although I didn't like being touched, I could handle it just fine. This made me question my previous actions and something about it didn't sit right with me. The answers and default feelings became inadequate explanations.

Discovering the world after years of being carefully screened from reality by my family made me seek out even more new experiences. This led me to enlisting in the Air Force.

I found what I was looking for at U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training while attending my first Sexual Assault Prevention and Response briefing. It was then I started to accept and truly understand what happened to me when I was younger.

The SAPR briefer was telling the typical scenario: a female goes alone to a place that is potentially dangerous and gets sexually abused or assaulted in some shape or form.

I related to this scenario. I recognized the situation and felt suffocated with my emotions as the realization of what I had been denying dawned on me.

I can still remember the calculated expression on the briefer's face as he asked, "Who thinks it was the fault of the girl?"

About half the people in the room - myself included - raised their hands.

"Why?" he asked the trainee next to me.

"Because she knew it was dangerous, but she went anyway," he replied. "She did it to herself."

I agreed with this. Maybe if I had predicted my situation better, been smarter, been older, done any number of things differently, I could have prevented it.

I thought it was my fault.

Someone else raised their hand and said, "It wasn't her fault. Yes, she went but she didn't assault herself. The reason for it happening was the person making the decision to do it."

The thought hadn't even occurred to me. I felt relief for a moment before that old voice telling me this was wrong demanded attention.

After speaking with various victim advocates and the Sexual Assault and Response Coordinator on base, I learned people occasionally join the Air Force for the care it provides to survivors of sexual assault.

The amount of care and support the Air Force provides to survivors of sexual assault is immense. While I did not join in order to heal from my assault, I was able to meet this head on for once and find a way to finally recover.

The message that sexual assault is not tolerated was repeated again and again. Through this I learned of the availability of such resources as the chaplain, counselors and medical examiners.

By the time I reached the technical school for my profession, I had enough knowledge of the subject to know how and where to seek help. Now the problem was whether or not I wanted it. I still wasn't sure how I felt about it.

I was confused because what I had been taught by society was in direct conflict with the values and principles of the service I had committed my life to.

My journey in the Air Force was progressing as I kept learning more about myself in ways I hadn't imagined. I started to realize I wasn't to blame for what happened.

It led me to reaching out to an instructor and, without giving many details, ask for guidance. One of the things she offered was to help me make an appointment to speak to a chaplain.

The instructor wasn't certain what was wrong, but she was concerned enough to take me seriously.  I had held it in for so long that the prospect of getting help was intriguing but it took me almost a month to take her up on it.

When I finally visited the chaplain he asked me if anything was wrong, and I told him I wasn't really sure. I had been living in denial for so long I didn't know if I was ready to accept the truth.

The conversation was long and personal, but one thing in particular stood out to me: I needed to stop accepting everyone else's excuses and start feeling for myself. I realized I don't owe anyone an explanation for why I feel the way I do about certain situations.

Most of the time, I am able to carry myself in a professional manner that only the most trained eye can see past. Most days I don't blame myself for the assault.

For me, the greatest help is deciding to accept how I feel every day, and not how others expect me to feel; I've learned to acknowledge what happened and I no longer hide from my past.

The SARC told me society places a stigma on those who struggle with uncomfortable realities, as if it is something to be embarrassed about.

Despite this stigma, my journey in the Air Force has taught me that I am not alone.

We, the survivors, are often silent. Sometimes it's necessary in the professional world in order to prevent preconceived notions about who we are and who we are not. This is okay, so long as you don't silence your inner voice or thoughts.

Everyone heals and reacts differently to sexual assault. Every experience is unique.

Regardless, the Air Force has a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault, and has capable personnel ready and willing to assist with the recovery process.

Although April is sexual assault awareness month, the Air Force has help available any month at any time. For more information about recovery, or to seek help, call 501-987-2685. For the sexual assault 24/7 hotline, call 987-7272. For confidential support for sexual assault victims, call the 24/7 safe helpline at 877-995-5247.