One Woman's Story of Rape in the Military

She Enlisted for Educational Opportunities But Was Betrayed, Raped by a Doctor

Military woman in her house
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Brigid Harry (not her real name) is a wife, mother, and co-owner of a small marketing communications company she runs with her husband. She earned her MBA after completing her military service and now lives in New York. After years of silence, she's decided to share her story.

I was 20, had already worked 3 years as a secretary at a major corporation in my hometown, and was impatient to 'grow.' I'd come in to the company all starry-eyed and within months had absorbed the tasks of two co-workers who'd been laid off, folks with years at the company and most with two-year degrees.

I didn't get far, because I was 20...and a 'girl.' Perhaps an immature, impatient girl as I look back on it, but I knew that a high school diploma was going to get me nowhere – unless I was happy staying a secretary, and I wasn't.

Decision to Enlist

A few years earlier I'd considered the military as an alternative to a career in the business world. The recruiters all focused on education in their pitches, so I took some tests which revealed I was very qualified for a program that the Marines had – photojournalist. They offered a special one-year program: candidates would live as 'civilians' and attend one of the country's top journalism school as part of their education. All I had to do is sign. And a few months later I did.

Boot camp was rough (9 weeks for the gals), and other than some minor back issues that developed from the daily PT (physical training), I did just fine. During this time, I took additional testing and earned a perfect score for 'Morse Code Intercept' and languages, which meant they really wanted me to learn Morse Code, and then Russian.

Even though I'd passed all the tests for photojournalist, I caved to their daily badgering, and signed away my first option.

'Normal' Conversations

I was sent to my first 'duty station' at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, FL, where all 5 services were sent to learn Morse Code. A few months into service, my back problems got worse, and I developed daily headaches and migraines.

The base doctor, a youngish Navy captain from Puerto Rico, assigned some physical therapy and then had me follow-up with him.

In our meetings, we'd chat – and I knew I had to be 'appropriate' in my conversations because he was an officer and I was enlisted. However, I believed that he was reaching out to me, glad to have a 'normal' conversation with someone who had interests outside of the base and the bars that ringed the base.

He invited me out to dinner one evening 'as friend.' Nothing romantic was implied, he assured me, and I mentioned that I did have a boyfriend back home, a young man I'd met just before I left. He said that he enjoyed our talks about old movies and old music, because everyone else on the base wanted to talk about 'getting drunk' or 'war.'

Dinner and Movies

He also assured me that it would be after hours, off the base, and that the officer/enlisted thing wouldn't be an issue. I hesitated, but I found him pleasant and believed what he said. We agreed to go to an 'old movie festival' (I actually think it was Bogart films) that was running that evening nearby, and he arranged to pick me up.

I dressed casually, which back then (and with my lack of fashion sense) was jeans, a jean vest, and some sort of shiny blue polyester shirt – a bit on the boyish side, as I think back, but as we were to grab a burger and then watch old movies in a darkened theater, fashion was the least of my concerns.

"Why Don't We Eat Here First?"

He was prompt. He drove a black Trans-Am Firebird. The car actually surprised me because he hadn't struck me as one of 'those kinds' of guys. Nevertheless, I climbed and we left to go to dinner.

But then he stopped at his off-base apartment, saying he needed to pick something up, and I could certainly join him for a few minutes. Okay, I thought – naively. As I noticed a package of chicken on the counter, and spices, and potatoes, he casually suggested, "Why don't we eat here first?" We had a few hours before the movies started, and besides, they ran continuously through the night.

I agreed, but with hesitation. He poured me a drink (the legal drinking age was at 18 at the time) and I consumed it, too quickly, which has always been my style. As he prepared dinner, I had another drink, and then a third.

They were strong, and I hadn't eaten anything since lunch 6 hours earlier.

The chicken went into the oven, and we sat on the couch to chat. I remember asking why he joined the service, as he'd indicated he wasn't 'like' the other military types on base. He said he just that he wanted to get out of Puerto Rico.

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

He poured me another drink and I hesitated, feeling buzzed and growing uncomfortable. I asked when dinner would be ready, and could we get to the movie festival in time. That's when he leaned over to kiss me. I recoiled. I mean, he was an officer, I was enlisted, and I had a boyfriend. My mind raced. I didn't know what to do. I said I had to use the bathroom and he pointed to a door in the hallway. I headed in that direction, my face red, feeling really uncomfortable.

When I opened the bathroom door to exit he was standing there with his pants off. He grabbed me in a huge bear hug and pushed me into the adjacent bedroom. I stiffened and said I wasn't interested – that I had a boyfriend, that I really felt sick to my stomach, that I didn't know about sex (all true).

Please, I thought we were going to see old movies. Please let me go, I feel nauseous. Please stop. Please don't do this. Please – please – please. Please.

He was stronger than me. He twisted my arms behind me and started pawing at my clothes – my boyish, unattractive clothes. He pulled until he created a burn between the denim and my thighs. He pulled at my underpants until they tore. He jumped on top of me as I pulled to turn sideways. His voice was angry now.

Frozen

It was over in a few moments – he was 'quick' to come to completion. I was frozen in a curled position, with my clothes draped over me.

He grunted, "Get up, I'll take you back to the base."

I didn't know what to do. Should I go with him? Should I get a cab? I said I'd go with him. I pulled my clothes back around me and stood there trembling.

He drove me to the base, and I jumped out of the car. My room was in a dorm-like setting, and I shared a bunk with an Army gal, African American, who outranked me. She wasn't home as she was on a date. I jumped into the shower and probably stood there for over an hour. I didn't cry. I tried, and couldn't. But I scrubbed and grew angry at myself, at him, at my life choices.

Admitting "I Had Been Raped"

Monday – three days later – I went to class. At noon, I went to the base chaplain, a Catholic priest, a Navy officer, and told him what happened. It wasn't easy, and I never looked up from my hands in my lap.

Did I lose my virginity, he asked, or was that something I had already done prior to Friday evening?

Well, I admitted, I don't think this did that because…oh, God – I remembered something – this man had a child-size penis. I knew what they looked like – I had two younger brothers and changed my share of diapers. No, I hadn't bled.

Was there any chance I was pregnant, the Navy priest then asked. I finally looked up, still red from having stated aloud the miniscule size of the doctor's penis.

What? Could I be pregnant? He continued that if there was any chance of pregnancy, I could never consider an abortion. What? Pregnant? That was the least of my concerns, I mumbled.

I was...yes, admit it…I had been raped. I mean, yes, I went in his car. Yes, I had drinks. Yes, I knew he was an officer and I was enlisted. But we were going to go watch old movies. But… but…

Discouraging Guidance

I waited a week, and my period came. One thing to NOT worry about, I suppose. And then I called my mom, who had a house full of little kids still. I told her what happened – and that's when I finally cried. She was audibly upset, and asked what would happen. I had no clue, I told her. I promised I would go back to the chaplain Monday and seek guidance.

Monday, I visited the chaplain – and told him I wasn't pregnant. He seemed relieved, and then asked what next. I told him, I think the man should be punished. Would he help me through that process? He squirmed and said that since I hadn't filed a police report immediately – that since I'd showered immediately after the incident -- it would be a difficult case. A case of "he said, she said." I said I was angry and that what he did was wrong – and I wanted to pursue it.

He made an appointment with my commanding officer, and I met with the man Tuesday, who spoke a lot of legalese to me and said he'd get back to me. There was a woman secretary, a high ranking enlisted Navy woman, taking notes. I couldn't tell if she was sympathetic or not to my story, as she was absolutely stone-faced. Perhaps she'd heard it all before.

"Didn't Want the Mess"

Wednesday after class I was walking to my bunk to unwind, grab a bite, and try to do homework when I saw a black Trans Am approaching me. It slowed to a crawl, I stopped, and then it raced past me, spewing pebbles and dust. Obviously the driver was pissed at me, and I felt afraid. Someone *must* have said something to him.

I spoke to my mom again that weekend. She was crying and told me to drop charges – that I would be the one on trial, that my father had spoken to an attorney and they decided that they didn't want the mess dragged through the local papers back home, that I'd have to find a way to move on.

I met with the commanding officer and made him an offer; if they'd let me go into photojournalism, as I'd originally signed up for, I'd not pursue anything against the doctor. Within 48 hours, I had new orders: a week medical leave at home, and then I'd join the next military journalism program starting in Indianapolis at an Army base.

I had made no real friends at the base, and other than my roommate who was kind and considerate during my time of stress, the few folks I knew from boot camp didn't know how to treat me. I was happy to leave.

"Where the Men Were in Charge"

Of course, then there were more problems at home. My dad's attorney suggested that I talk to a 'shrink', as my dad said – a profession my father had very little use for.

I went, and the 'shrink' wrote up a report and sent to my former commanding officer, and one to my upcoming commanding officer, that I was immature and really wasn't a good candidate for a life in the military.

I joined the journalism program, came in second in my class, made friends, maintained a long-distance pen-pal relationship with the boy back home, but started struggling as I got to my new duty station in North Carolina. Back in a world where the men were in charge, despite the obvious women of rank around, I started getting angry and upset and lonely.

I refused to work one day, and the 'shrink' back home --per my dad's attorney's advice -- sent along his report. A higher ranking woman suggested that it would be a rough few weeks, but if I wanted to get out, that 'boycotting' work was one way to do it.

Honorable Discharge

I met with the base's commanding officer, who had all my files – my 'episode' in Florida, my decision not to press charges, my letters from doctors back home, and my test scores.

He expressed concern that I chose not to honor my contract with the Marines, but as a dad to young daughters, he wished me well. He asked me to promise him that I would go back to school, even part-time, and try to contribute something positive.

I received an honorable discharge a year and a day after I started boot camp.

To this day, I can't remember the Navy doctor's name – or his face, thank God. I'm thankful that one man, my final commanding officer, treated me with some respect.

Homecoming

My boyfriend, who'd stuck by me when I was away, proposed as soon as I returned home, but then started acting uncomfortable in my presence, and as I assumed he started seeing other girls, we broke up.

I went back to my job, making up excuses why I was home so soon. My cousins got wind of my seeing a psychologist and just last year I had to correct one of them as they were joking that I couldn't handle the service so my dad had to 'get me out.'

I finally looked one in the eye and said, "Do you know that I was raped by an officer when I was there?" That shut them up, but I've lost interest in family gatherings. (Of course, these are the cousins who are right-of-center pro-military, never having served themselves).

Questions Without Answers

I've never written this down, ever. I'd told the story – to the chaplain, to my CO and his secretary, to the psychologist back home, a version to my bunkmate. As I type this right now my temples are throbbing, and my face and ears are burning and red.

I've looked back over the years and asked myself, "Why did I say I'd go to the film festival with him?" I've questioned my posture, my wardrobe, my jokes, my drinks.

Of course I've questioned my timidity at the exact moment I should've turned into she-woman or something.

I was a 20-year-old, non-sexually active moron. I was cornered, I got trapped, by a bigger man with a tiny penis. And the priest could only care about abortion. My mom could only care about the 'local papers' (although, as a mom now myself, I can imagine the pain she personally went through, trying to keep her anxiety from my younger siblings – but she's decided now, after all these years, that I 'made it up' just to get out of the service – and I can't convince her otherwise. I've decided not to bring it up again.)

No Knives, No Fists...But Still Rape

I read stories of women who may or may not have been in relationships that 'got out of hand' in the military, and I sometimes read about the young woman, beaten or worse, as she was raped.

Me? Just bear-hugged, overpowered, and bruised – no knives, no fists.

But I can't shake the sudden stomach pains I have this moment – that, and the reddened face.