Where do I start? Probably with a trigger warning.
Vanessa Guillen is a private first class (PFC) in the United States Army who disappeared in April from the Fort Hood area less than a week after she reported a supervisor for sexual harassment. The Army didn’t begin looking for her for OVER A MONTH…and found another missing soldier’s body in the eventual hunt for Vanessa. In the last twenty-four hours, another set of remains has been discovered, and they have yet to be verified as Vanessa’s.
In the last two and a half months, female veterans and active duty members have been rallying around Vanessa’s story, which is one of sexual harassment in the military, and attempting to raise awareness about the breadth of harassment that we have experienced. #Iamvanessa has been trending…and my Facebook feed has been filled with my sisters in arms talking about their experiences, some even naming their rapists. We have listened to each other, encouraged each other to report these men, and continued discussing what we have experienced. The male veterans are appalled that this has happened in their midst with women they served with and I have seen many men come to the females and say, “How did I fail you?” These are all conversations that need to happen…but the stories became too much for me and I deleted my Facebook app and went to therapy to discuss my stories…yes, stories.
My stories are complex.
When I was a PFC (E-2) myself, my Company Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) used MySpace to contact me after he found out that I was having a relationship with my instructor (while consensual, wasn’t allowed). He proceeded to blackmail me for sexual favors and in exchange, he wouldn’t turn me in. He was married and using his position of authority on an 18 year old to get what he wanted.
I was on a field op with a Sergeant (E-5) of mine who invited me to get pizza for the rest of the guys and proceeded to tell me I should give him a blowjob on the ride back or he would write me lower proficiency and conduct markings. I avoided his demands but the ride back in the HUMVEE was torture. He later died and everyone was so sad. Reading everyone’s musing on how terrible it was that he died, I shrugged. He was one of the smartest Marines I served with. He taught me a lot of what I know about my job. Did I need to put up with the sexual harassment to get the knowledge?
Another Sergeant of mine drove me to the store once and told me to give him my underwear or he would leave me on the side of the road. I got out of the car and started walking. He was married. This was weeks after Pizza Sergeant, and damn if he wasn’t the one who needed to teach me how to configure an Exchange Server for the field.
A peer of mine hit on me, grabbing my ass, and when I reacted in an appalled way, told me my husband would believe him and not me so I should shut my fucking mouth.
Another Sergeant who was piss drunk came into the room where I was sleeping and groped me. I shoved him off of me and left crying. He proceeded to say “fuck you anyway” and peed on the bed. I told my (now ex) husband and he did nothing.
A Staff Sergeant (E-6) I didn’t know, who was taking care of vulnerable Wounded Warriors in Germany like myself slid his hand up my leg on the way to the hospital, telling me that he would be there to support me in whatever way I needed. Physically impaired, psychologically broken, without a car or money in a country I didn’t know…wtf.
Then the bigger stories, like the book I wrote about being blackmailed in Afghanistan by a contractor…
Or one that I haven’t told many people, about my civil service boss (GS-12) who cornered me in the server farm, who told me he loved me and when I didn’t leave my fiancé for him, proceeded to make the last year of my enlistment hell. He would call me into work at all hours of the day and night, called me a lying slut for not sleeping with him, threatened to get my rank reduced when I blocked his phone number because of the horrible texts he sent me…see, I wasn’t allowed to block my boss…When he threatened reducing my rank, I went to the Equal Opportunity Representative and showed them all of the texts and emails, making a record in case something happened (oh, you mean like Vanessa??). I didn’t even think to report him officially and get him taken out of his position. This was 2012, and without getting told, I knew nothing would happen to him if he was reported. The last day of my enlistment, he told me to slip my underwear in his pocket before I left. BEGGED me. I told him to fuck off and left.
Why are these stories complex? Because I considered these people my friends, or at the very least my bosses, the keepers of the knowledge, the owners of my career. Coercion, guilt, blackmail, the ol’ boy network…all of it melted into situations where I felt I OWED something to someone who I cared for as a friend (or my life and livelihood was threatened). These men were supposed to protect me, to mentor me as a young Marine, to build me up. Sometimes I came out unscathed, sometimes I did not. All of those stories happened before I was 22 years old. I was certainly not weak either…but my career’s position was precarious. A lot of times I froze, succumbing to “friends” and bosses who used their power and my lack of it.
After leaving the Marine Corps, my stories didn’t stop, including getting raped as a civilian. I was sexually harassed for months as a contractor in 2018, and I reported it. He still works with me. Sexual harassment from others continues to this day, most recently this Monday in the form of a very simple catcall. But I can’t stand for a “simple” catcall at my workplace. Not when I know the darker side of a catcall…
My name is Savannah, and #iamvanessa.