Mother speaks out about her rape as one of the first female Naval Aircrew Members

Ellen, United States Navy

My teenage son plans to apply for West Point, and it is my dream to help leave a legacy for him, including a fair and safe military. As he and I have discussed his goals, I’ve come to realize that I should tell my story to prevent what happened to me in 1989, during my enlistment as one of the Navy’s first female aircrew member, to prevent this from happening to future generations.

I have reached out to MST Survivors through social media, joined forces to help our newest survivors, and rallied around the movement which supports measures like the Military Justice Improvement Act. The MJIA takes the reporting, investigation, adjudication and victim care for cases out of the local unit chain of command. In my case, no one could have helped me, while I remained under the command and control of the aircrew culture which collectively had no regard for my presence among them. It’s unconscionable to me that the same climate exists today, as when I didn’t report my rapes, believing that my rapes were planned as retaliation for invading the “all boys club.” Just like me more than 20 years ago, I’ve learned 90 percent of victims are still afraid to report.

My rape occurred after I was selected to be the first enlisted female to attend Air Crew School. It was 1988, when I was raped, and I had just finished technical training as a Cryptologist, when I was 19. I believe I was selected for aircrew training because I was expected to fail, being that I wasn’t the best student in my tech school. I was very young, and thought surely a senior female Cryptologist already in the fleet would be better qualified. But, I accepted the challenge, and enjoyed the aircrew, and survival, schools, required to fly as a Cryptologist. The first evidence of the discord I was walking into happened after training.

I was assigned to a Naval Air Squadron, in Spain. On the first night at my new squadron, a group of senior co-workers took me to a Sangria bar in town. That evening, my co-workers disappeared leaving me stranded in a bar, in a new country. Unaware of the stigma of placing a female among the crew, I couldn’t understand why I was left behind? Trying to find my way back to the barracks, I felt very confused and frightened.

My first deployment from Spain, was to Athens Greece. As the only female of a 25 man crew, it quickly became clear that I had invaded a very tight fraternity, and my presence was resented. During the first night there, I was told that every time a newbie deploys they go out for “six shots of tequila.” I decided to go through with the initiation; my plan was to return to my room to sleep off the alcohol. It wasn’t uncommon for underage service members to drink while deployed during those days. But the next day, I learned I’d suffered a very different fate than a simple drinking-game initiation into the aircrew.

A female officer who had a room next to mine pulled me aside to tell me she heard men coming back from the bars, and knocking on my hotel door, throughout the night. Each time she opened her door they went away. I was horrified. The female officer made a report to our command, and an executive order immediately came down that our squadron prohibited all initiation drinking games, now that women were flying. From then on, I was totally isolated. Rumors were spreading that I had slept with more than one of the men on the aircrew. When their wives were present, I was avoided, and not included in social circles. My fellow air crew members avoided talking to me, and if they did, it was impersonal. I never felt so alone, like a stranger in a strange land.

Eventually, I was sent on another deployment to Greece. I felt I could manage my interactions with people to ensure what happened on my first deployment, didn’t happen again. So one evening, when I was asked by a quiet, married crew member to join him for a drink, I felt it was a safe, low-risk opportunity to socialize. The last thing I remember is having one drink with this man. I am confident I was drugged. The following morning I woke up black, blue and purple from head to toe. I had severe bruising and swelling between my legs. My vagina was raw. I was covered with vomit and bodily fluids. The man I had had one drink with was still there. But the bruising and the mess that was made in the night told me, there had been more than one visitor to my room. I soaked in a bath to rid myself of the disgustingness that was done to my body. I put on a turtle neck under my flight-suit to hide my bruised neck, and went to work broken.

We flew a very long mission that day, and no one made eye contact with me. I was convinced that all the male officers and enlisted, who wanted to get to me after the tequila initiation, finally got their chance to rape me. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, I will never know because I was too afraid to tell, and the situation was never investigated. I’m haunted by the possibility of what might have happened to me, unprotected, alone and betrayed. And I’m haunted by what did happen. Betrayal by someone I thought could be a safe place during a deployment, someone I could just talk to about our work, and the next day’s mission. I knew telling would cause me to lose my job; I was so young and afraid of these older, married aircrew members and their wives. Without proof, I’d most likely be charged with underage drinking, and feared even worse repercussions than social isolation that happened due to false rumors.

Once we returned to Spain from deployment, I was harassed by wives and girlfriends. They all suspected that I was having an affair with all of their spouses! I couldn’t reconcile how one man drugging and raping me, equated to the escalation of social stigmatization. I was dating a service member who had returned back to the states. Rumors reached him and he broke up with me. I never tried to explain my story to him, due to shame. As a result, my performance didn’t meet standards, and I was removed from air crew. I was placed in jobs where I didn’t have much contact with people. Thankfully, a female Master Chief took me under her wing. She was Christian so I started attending church at missionary houses, and was eventually baptized. I also met a very nice group of runners and tri-athletes whom I bonded with, and spent most time, off training, practicing to meet physical training standards, and races.

I believe God saved me from hurting myself, during the aftermath, by sending me compassionate people to help me. I separated from active duty in 1992, when I was 21; returned home and immediately joined the reserves and started college, repressing all of the sexual harassment, the personal attacks, and the rapist. My time in the reserves was very positive. Without stress, I was able to flourish, learn, and earn the respect of my co-workers. I was even selected to serve at a Joint Task Force several times to work in anti-narcotics. In 1994, I married, and in 1997 we had our first child. So, I decided to leave the reserves. Over the years I have not been able to forget my attack. I’ve had random bouts of anger when I’ve realize what I was cheated out of back in Spain. My innocence taken, my body defiled my reputation in ruins. I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and detachment from post traumatic stress disorder. I can’t fly in an aircraft without being heavily medicated, or I have severe unmanageable panic attacks. When I see aircraft flying above me I’m triggered. I do have shame for not reporting my attack, shame from taking part in underage drinking. I have health consequences, bladder conditions, and fibromyalgia. All of which stems from the horrific rape and aftermath I survived.

When I hear of the suicidality, errant mental health diagnosis, homelessness and poverty today’s MST Survivors are enduring, I wonder what I would have done, had I not had such an incredible support system with my husband who agreed that I should stay home to raise a family. I’ve found peace, as much as possible, in burying myself in my family life. I’ve dedicated myself to a life of service fostering 13 medically-fragile newborns, and working with a non-profit in Washington State to advocate for foster children. And yet, in my heart of hearts, I know that I have not reached my full potential, according to who I am as a woman, because of my fears of leaving the safe inner circle of my family. I know that thousands of survivors suffer a much worse fate.

More than twenty years later, it’s clear nothing has changed, things have gotten worse, and something must be done about this, now. Getting injured in the line of duty is one thing. But enabling a rapist, tolerating a culture which tolerates them, where they can hide undetected, is another. I believe it is our duty to speak out, and demand our government right these wrongs. It is unfortunate that to make this need a reality, it is necessary for me to share this very intimate, and personal tragedy, but it clearly is necessary.

Thank you for letting me share my story.

One comment

  1. Ellen,
    Your account of that awful time in your life is heart-breaking.
    And, your bravery and your words are incredibly important.
    We owe not just our service members but our country a safe and fully inclusive, functioning military.
    May no one ever suffer as you have.
    Know this:
    - The life you have made for yourself and for your family is an inspiration.
    - Right now, some very good people, both advocates and victims, both in the military and out, are working to change things.

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