I Saw It Too

Posted: July 8, 2020 in military, real life

With the discovery of Vanessa Guillen’s body and the account of her murder on Fort Hood, the national conversation has turned to sexual assault and harassment in the military. I have watched many online friends and acquaintances come forward on my feed to contribute their stories. I debated whether I should add my voice to this topic.

To be very clear, I have never served in the military. Rather, I have worked as a contractor for Department of Defense contractors or military customers the majority of my career, which included a brief deployment to Iraq in 2009 (as a technical writer and software trainer). But I decided that is why I should write about my experiences–because my outside perspective, what I saw as a non-military person, only corroborates what all these female soldiers and sailors are saying now. I’m NOT saying #ImVanessaGuillen, far from it; I’m saying I saw it too.

When I went to get my required vaccines for my trip to Iraq, the doctor more or less guaranteed me that I would be raped in theater. He had served multiple tours in the Army as a doctor and had since retired to civilian practice. He asked me why they would be sending a girl like me (25 year old civilian) to that place and why I would agree to go. He did not tell me to be worried about rocket attacks or Iraqi insurgents. He looked into my wide, young, naive civilian eyes and told me I needed to fear the other Americans more than anything else. He said he had seen and treated numerous patients for being raped by their own in theater, going into detail I won’t repeat here. He asked if I was married and instructed me to say I was, to make sure I mentioned a husband clearly and often. He said they might respect that I belonged to someone more. Then he stuck me with the shots and wished me luck. When he looked at me before he left the room, I could tell from the heavy, dejected glance he gave me exactly what he expected to happen to me over there.

My female coworker who had gone to Iraq (and possibly also Afghanistan) as a software trainer before me told me how she had caught a man’s eye in the dining facility (DFAC) one day. That night, someone had tried to break into her trailer as she slept. He had not been able to get through the door, but she assumed it was the same man from the DFAC.

When I arrived in theater, there were unique signs in the female spaces. From my bathroom trailer on Dodge City South to the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) gym on Victory Base Complex (VBC) to the small forward operating bases (FOBs) like War Eagle or Tallil. All the signs communicated the same message: have a battle buddy, don’t shower or workout or go to the bathroom by yourself, you’re not safe alone. There were a couple other females with my company in theater when I was, but we did not work the same shifts and rarely went the same places at the same time. I was usually the only girl, so I found these signs unnerving. Maybe men had these signs too; maybe everyone was supposed to have a battle buddy, but that is not how the messaging was conveyed.

I worked swing shift for the majority of my time in theater, noon to midnight. I had a roommate only for part of my time, but she also worked the day shift, so we overlapped very little. When I got home, it was the middle of the night. I had to trek a quarter mile to the bathroom trailer alone in the dark. Between the doctor’s warning, the stories, and the signs, my paranoia was thick. The trailer pad was covered in rocks and gravel to combat the native mud, so you could hear every footstep. If I ever heard anyone else in the dark, I stopped walking and turned off my light, waiting and hiding in the dark, hoping they would not know I was there and could not see I was female.

One day, I went on a support call with a male coworker. We went to the desk of a sergeant who was having trouble with our software. The sergeant had pictures of his family and his waning countdown calendar to his trip home on his desk. He was nice, flirtatious, but I thought nothing of it. We resolved his issue and returned to our trailer. Later, the sergeant emailed me on the secure network (SIPR). He was very complimentary and expressed how he wanted to get to know me in normal life. I, again, did not react much but shared the email with my coworkers, who at this point had to endure hearing just about every thought in my head.

My coworkers were less dismissive of the sergeant’s advances. They seemed genuinely worried about it, which changed my reaction. As he continued to email, I saw in their response that this was something to be concerned about, to be scared of. They asked if he knew where I slept, which DFAC I ate at. When he started calling the trailer, they made sure I never had to talk to him and that he knew I would not be handling his inquiries. When he showed up at the trailer, they got rid of him. They took the situation very seriously and kept me safe. Then the sergeant’s countdown ran out, and he rotated home, and I never had to hear from him again.

As a civilian, pushy flirtation was annoying, but I didn’t interpret it as dangerous until I saw how my coworkers reacted. Much like I wouldn’t have been wary of everyone I interacted with without the doctor’s horrific stories. Much like I would not have stopped walking in the dark without the battle buddy sign in every bathroom.

I prepared for theater without these expectations, and I managed (through the guardianship of some amazing men I worked with) to make it through my entire deployment without being assaulted. However, my encounters with other people’s experiences and the culture itself (we haven’t even touched on the volume on non-combat event rape reports in the database I worked with) showed me how real that threat was even before I met my stalker.

I saw these things as an outsider, without coming up through the military or learning any complacency to it. They came through fresh, naive eyes. So many things blinked and screamed like red warning signs.

So, do I believe there is a problem with sexual assault and harassment and the handling of it in the military? I know there is. Yet just like when we talk about police brutality, it’s not everyone. The men who kept me safe (who traveled with me so I wasn’t on unfamiliar bases alone, we left me the car so I wasn’t walking in the dark across the base at midnight, who told me how to react to rocket attacks) were military once too, and I know they’re not the only ones who would do that for someone. But they shouldn’t have to. The system is broken, and it’s failing some people. Just like the police and justice systems. Goodness amidst the problems doesn’t mean we don’t fix the problems.


Christina Bergling

  1. This is startling (and disappointing) to hear, but is a sign of the broken system you mention.. I think that it also is important to notice that it is not just white men abusing their social currency, but men in general who believe (if not KNOW) that they can rely on that slippery slope excuse men have used for so long to cover and expect coverage of their misdeeds… It IS time for change, for an exposure of Institutional Entitlement (which includes racism and sexism)… It isn’t all soldiers, all cops, all men… But it is the subtext of “brotherhood even in crime” that needs to be dissembled…because the next victim could indeed be your wife, your daughter, your sister, your friend… like this beautiful young woman we see in a photograph in the news. After the most popular video of the week. And the weather. And anything else everyone could talk about instead…

    Liked by 1 person

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