Commentaries
Commentary | April 8, 2022

How my sexual assault shaped me but did not break me

By Tech. Sgt. Kayla White Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Public Affairs

Joining the military was an intense, transformational experience filled with rites of passage, experiences designed to prepare me to act as a member of a team and conform so I could truly commit to something bigger than myself. One unexpected and devastating experience during my initial training changed me forever.

My rape damaged not only my sense of self, but also my sense of belonging at a critical phase of my career. I became a member of the more than 20 thousand annual unreported cases of sexual assault, according to Department of Defense survey estimates. In the midst of high rates of reported and unreported cases of sexual assault from military members, my rape felt like some dark rite of passage.

I signed up to join the military to become a public affairs broadcast journalist in the New Hampshire Army National Guard in July 2008, barely 17 years old and still in high school.

My mother had been a medic in the state’s medical unit for longer than I had been alive at that point. While I may not have been the traditional active-duty “military brat,” I still viewed the military as a normal way of life because I grew up surrounded by it. Joining was not a matter of ‘if’ for me so much as a matter of ‘when.’

I made it through basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, with many of the memorable and universally-shared experiences most Soldiers endure: falling asleep standing in line for chow; severely blistered feet from breaking in new boots; pushups…pushups anywhere and anytime; regular fire guard shifts by flashlight at the end of a dark bay, surrounded by dozens of other exhausted, homesick, snoring, sleeping Soldiers. These are all rites of passage I remember fondly and can laugh at today.

After graduation, I eagerly proceeded to Fort Meade, Maryland, to attend Advanced Individual Training. There, I shifted gears from basic Soldiering to job-specific training at the hub for all DOD public affairs specialists, the Defense Information School, or DINFOS.

Shortly after arriving, my roommate and I went to a hotel party off post with some male Soldiers where we engaged in heavy drinking with several other military members. I eventually separated from the crowd to go to another hotel room. I remember feeling very tired and, this point is important to me, I chose to lay down to go to sleep.

I went to sleep, surrounded by my “Battle Buddies” with whom I should’ve been able to entrust my life. Instead, at least one of those male Soldiers seized the opportunity to rape me while I was in that compromised, vulnerable state.

I do not feel compelled to give a detailed description of what I remember from the assault, nor do I choose to name the individual(s) involved. What matters is the profound impact it had on me from the very onset of my military career.

Days later, I hesitantly asked my roommate for her take on what happened, quietly praying for some kind of validation. I didn’t get that. Instead, what she seemed to imply was because it appeared like I was willingly leaving with this male Soldier that any reasonable person would interpret what happened as a consensual interaction that I welcomed.  

The male Soldier shared his “achievement” with others, and I became “that female” according to the detachment rumor mill. I didn’t deserve that. No one does.

After that, I isolated myself from others during the school week. I went binge drinking every weekend to numb and distract myself. Drinking also became an unhealthy way to disinhibit myself enough to be around other people, because even though I did not feel safe around them, I still longed for their acceptance and camaraderie. I felt like a mess, and I probably looked like one to everyone around me.

I failed out of that first DINFOS course and was recycled while my classmates graduated and moved onto their first duty assignments.

When I started the next iteration of the course, it felt like an opportunity to reclaim some semblance of myself around people who didn’t know what happened. Instead of continuing to collapse in, I shifted gears into controlling perfectionism.

I volunteered for student leadership positions, and I outperformed my classmates, earning praise from my DINFOS instructors and detachment leadership. I promoted early twice within the five and a half months I was there because of my performance.

What they saw was a stellar Soldier. They saw my charismatic, funny, ambitious persona.

What they did not see was how hypercritical I had become of myself. They did not know every bit of feedback from anyone felt like it could make or break the precarious balance I struggled to achieve.

They did not know I compulsively tracked what I ate or that, in addition to morning group physical training, I exercised two to three hours every night just so I could fall asleep.

They had no idea the amount of pain I was in, and I was too wound up in the belief that my rape was at least partially my fault to report it.

Any time I considered disclosing the rape to my leadership, I shamed myself into thinking that if I had just been more careful or if I had not flirted with him, then it would not have happened. When I wasn’t blaming myself, I at least felt certain I could not convince anyone else to believe me. And when I felt like I could convince someone to believe me, I worried that I would be kicked out of the military because I had been drinking underage.

I was burning myself out in search of acceptance and approval and in a desperate effort to avoid calling my rape what it was. I think I thought that if I could continue to excel through performance, I would eventually prove that I belonged, that I was worthy, and that what happened to me was only as serious as I let it appear to be. To whom I was trying to prove this, I could not have told you at the time. Who I should have been trying to convince was myself.

It took me five years to validate my own experience, only after another Soldier disclosed their own assault to me and how it was impacting their ability to contribute to the mission. When they shared their experience with me, I did my best to show up for them and advocate for our leadership to accommodate them as they weathered the stormy aftermath.

I distinctly remember driving home from work one day with my husband at the time and memories from my rape came creeping back to me. I started crying but could not begin to articulate what was wrong. I could not yet name my feelings, but it was as if I had opened the flood gates and this general sense of overwhelm came pouring out. I could no longer hold it back.

It took me at least another year to finally disclose to my then-husband what happened to me. It was not until after our divorce, after more than six years of marriage, that I finally got into therapy and began the work of acknowledging this significant violation of my body and mind. Only then could I explore all the areas of my life it had ripple-affected. Only then was I able to begin identifying the unhealthy ways I coped. I gently but honestly started holding myself accountable so I could heal and learn to thrive again.

I have had so many wonderful opportunities and met so many incredible people along the way, but my rape colored the lens through which I viewed every single life experience after it.

I struggled with some level of imposter syndrome. Every success I had felt like this ongoing magic act, like I am seconds away from someone exposing me for the fraud I am. I felt like I would never be good enough and nothing I contributed would be truly meaningful.

I struggled to connect personally or professionally with people; I convinced myself that if they only knew how complex and damaged I was, they would not want anything to do with me. I have pushed people away and been incredibly guarded. It has hindered my ability to connect people who served alongside me every step of the way. For the longest time, I felt like even though I enlisted in the military, I never quite belonged.

Earlier on in my therapy, I was so deeply angry. It felt like my rapist robbed me of some key part of myself, without which I would never find peace or be truly loved. I mourned the perceived loss of who I was and dreaded what I anticipated would be a lonely, half-lived life.

As time went on, even as I made great strides, I was always painfully aware of how much more work there would always be to do. It was exhausting and intimidating, and sometimes it still is.

It has been more than 12 years since my sexual assault. More than 150 turns of calendar pages, because even though my own slice of it would never be the same, life, in fact, did not stop moving.

My path to healing does not come with oversimplified suggestions and advice to others who have been sexually assaulted. However, I know my journey can be relatable and hope that it validates and encourages to those who want or need a push to move forward.

I committed myself to therapy, journaling, healthy eating and exercise habits, and good sleep hygiene. I gradually sought more challenging opportunities to be vulnerable with the people who mattered to me and who I trusted. Once I did this, it felt like a heavy sandbag had been lifted off my chest. I could finally breathe.

Healing and growth are not simple. That’s in no way what I’m implying. And it’s not like once I reached a certain level of either that I never struggled again.

True growth and healing after sexual assault is not linear. It requires a special kind of diligence and a tremendous amount of support. I am still triggered sometimes, and it can take time to find my footing again. But I have learned that the work is still worth it – that I am still worth the effort.

It took time to recognize that I am not fundamentally damaged or irredeemable … because I did not do anything wrong. My rape and the related struggles I have overcome do not detract from my inherent value or my potential in the world. As the days, weeks, and years continue to pass, I consistently become more confident in that fact.
I am allowed to be incredibly proud of how far I have come. I am in awe at and thankful for how profoundly I feel things and am truly grateful for how compassionate and intuitive a person I have become.

I know there is no reset button and that I cannot go back in time to stop my rape from happening. I do still wish I could go back and be there for that younger version of myself in that difficult time. I wish I could hug her, tell her she did nothing to deserve what happened to her, and try to show her that things can and will get better.

I know I cannot do that, so I will focus my energy on reaching out to connect with others who might relate to my story and are struggling.

Your story is unique to you, and however you are feeling is valid. You have every right to feel your way through the aftermath in your own way and in your own time. There is no approved map or timeline you are required to follow.

When you are ready, help is there in the form of resources and tremendously caring people, all dedicated to your recovery and ready to meet you where you are at.

At every phase of your healing, you are worthy, you are loved, and you are incredibly brave. And, even if we have never met before, I am beyond proud of the warrior you are.
 
DOD Safe Helpline
Safe Helpline is the Department of Defense’s sole hotline for members of the DOD community affected by sexual assault. Safe Helpline is a completely anonymous, confidential, 24/7, specialized service—providing help and information anytime, anywhere. A Safe Helpline user can access one-on-one support, peer-to-peer support, information, resources, and self-care exercises to aid in their recovery.
Chat: DOD Safe Helpline
Call: 877-995-5247
Text: 55247
 
Read more here about the DOD’s Safe-to-Report Guidance, providing some level of protection for service member reporting a sexual assault who may have been involved in collateral misconduct like underage drinking, unprofessional relationships, or violations of curfews or off-limits locations.
https://www.sapr.mil/sites/default/files/Safe_to_Report_Guidance_for_Issuing_Services_and_NGB_Policies_Sec539A_NDAA_FY2021_Reference_Copy.pdf 
 
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AF SAPR Information
24/7 hotline: (202) 767-7272
Email: 11WG.CVS.SARC_SAPR@us.af.mil
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