I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy when one day at lunch the nine men with whom I shared a table started discussing sexual assault. It was February 2003, and seven current and former Air Force Academy cadets had just appeared on “20/20,” shocking the country with their stories of having been raped and then punished for reporting the rapes.
The senior cadet at the table asked, “What do you think of those whores who are tarnishing our academy?” The first-year across from me answered, “Sir, I think a woman who gets herself raped isn’t strong enough to defend herself, let alone the country, and shouldn’t be in the military.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” the senior cadet said.
This one conversation among my classmates, my “brothers in arms,” helped me to fully understand why I had remained silent after my own rape. My classmates had made the implicit cultural belief explicit: Victims were to be blamed for their rapes, and if they lost their military careers for it, all the better.
It had been a snowy Saturday evening when, two years earlier, a senior cadet who had offered to help me study raped me in a secluded area on the library floor. I was 18 and had been a cadet for only six months. I told no one, not even a few days later when I developed symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease — herpes. Not even two weeks later, when the herpes virus traveled to my nervous system and spread to my spinal cord and the tissue around my brain, causing meningitis. I was immediately admitted into the academy’s intensive care unit, but when the Air Force doctor asked me if I was sexually active, I said no. I wouldn’t dare risk my career by telling him the truth of what had happened to me; so the virus that caused my infection went untreated.
Over the next several years, I spent hundreds of days in and out of hospitals. I developed what may be a lifelong, chronic daily headache disorder. Several years ago, I got a device called a peripheral nerve stimulator implanted near my brain, which made it possible for me to work and exercise again, but I am still in pain daily.
I also lost my career and my dream of becoming a pilot, and the Air Force lost a competent and devoted officer candidate. Two years after my first hospitalization, in 2004, I was medically discharged from the military. The consequences of not reporting my rape were direct, to me and to my country.
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