In the early summer of 2018, I was deployed to the Middle East. It was my second deployment to this location, doing the same mission: conducting airborne surveillance in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. It was, truthfully, pretty uneventful. I remember reading a lot of books (the camp library was well-stocked and quiet, an introvert’s delight) and playing video games in the MWR (where the internet was better but we also got eaten alive by mosquitoes). But one particular situation will stay with me for the rest of my life.
About halfway through the deployment, someone realized that one of the magazines was missing a bullet – a single 9mm bullet. How long had it been missing? Whose responsibility was it: the flyers who carried the magazines in their vests, or the people whose job it was to maintain the ordinance? When was the last time all of the bullets had been accounted for?
We searched the plane all day, even after an 8+ hour flight. We looked through every station, every vest, every compartment. We looked behind panels and under seat cushions. We opened boxes and shook out emergency equipment. We did at all again and again and again. We took up floorboards and crawled around stacks of wiring and ventilation. We must have put flashlight beams on every surface of that plane, inside and out.
It was, of course, a completely futile effort – a literal needle in a haystack – but we kept at it for days, rotating groups every few hours, searching 24/7 without pause. We never found the missing bullet, but we sure tried.
What does this have to do with Vanessa Guillen?
Vanessa had been dealing with sexual harassment from someone in her chain of command, but resolved to handle it on her own. She went missing at the end of April. The Army didn’t offer a reward for information regarding her whereabouts until June. For what it’s worth, I’m willing to believe that the Army was doing their due diligence in the investigation – even purely for the sake of covering their own asses – but they must have done a very poor job of keeping the family appraised, because Vanessa’s family and friends unleashed a relentless social media campaign to draw attention to her disappearance. There is a history of Fort Hood not finding its missing soldiers. (WARNING: this article contains details of Vanessa’s gruesome death.)
But if Vanessa Guillen had been a single 9mm bullet, nobody would have gone home until she was found.
In April 2014, I had been onboard the USS Blue Ridge in Japan for seven months. It was my first duty station. I was brand new to the Navy, I had only just moved into the barracks after living on the ship full-time, and I was overseas alone without any family or friends. I went to a party at a friend’s house, someone I considered a friend and a mentor, almost like an older brother. It was a small, low-key party – maybe a half a dozen people total, including myself and my date – and we stayed up late, playing games and drinking. Too late, in fact, to catch the train back. Most of us ended up staying the night.
My friend – again, someone I liked and respected – sexually assaulted me that night. My date watched me sobbing brokenly afterwards, and cared for me until the sun came up and we could go home.
I was lucky, I told myself, laying in my own bed the next day. It could have been so much worse. Emotionally, I was numb, completely empty and hollow, but this lack of feeling gave me the strength to do what I was supposed to do. I reported it right away, choosing the option that would give me access to treatment and services but would not start an investigation into the incident. I couldn’t even write down the name of the person who assaulted me on the report; that was supposed to be my close friend. I was more hurt and scared than I’d ever been in my life.
I did everything right. Because I didn’t want NCIS involved, I didn’t tell anyone what happened to me, besides my parents, my roommate, and my boyfriend at the time. I went to therapy and got spiritual guidance from the priest on base. Months went by, and the feelings began to return. I started acting out: I was angry and frustrated and irritable and taking it out on everyone around me. Worse, I had no idea why I was behaving this way; I didn’t understand the connection between unresolved trauma and emotional instability. Fortunately for me, my supervisor was also my victim advocate, and he did a great job of giving me the physical and emotional space I needed during work time to begin to process my feelings. His consistent and reassuring presence went a long way in helping me heal.
But I still had to see my assailant every day at work. He was in my duty section; I laid awake in my rack at night knowing that he was only a few compartments away. We had the same circle of friends. I was too scared to go into his work space and made excuses to have someone else go there instead. Seeing him in the ship’s narrow passageways left me completely paralyzed, heart racing, sweating. He sent me messages asking for my forgiveness, but also admitting that he had a history of doing things like that in the past. On our next deployment, I saw him go on overnight liberty with a girl with a reputation different from my own, and it took all the air out of my lungs. I was scared for her. If he did to her what he did to me, no one would believe her.
So, about three months after the incident, I changed my report to start an investigation. It was the most invasive thing I have ever experienced. NCIS agents interviewed almost everyone I knew about the worst thing to ever happen to me. They took my phone and my computer, read all my texts between my friends and my boyfriend, some of them deeply personal. They made me tell my story over and over again, trying to identify inconsistencies, asking probing questions that seemed, at best, completely irrelevant and, at worst, extremely disrespectful.
Once again, I was lucky. I had a legal counsel who fought like hell for me, especially against my own Commanding Officer who, understandably, wanted to punish my assailant on the command level. But what happened to me was a crime. I wanted it to be treated with proportional seriousness. Almost a year after the start of the investigation, my case went to court-martial. My assailant plead guilty to a lesser charge (assault, not sexual assault), which was something I had agreed to, given the court’s high burden of proof for what was essentially a he-said-she-said situation. He was sentenced to two weeks at the brig, forfeiture of pay, and eventual administrative discharge from the Navy.
My story is one of the system working correctly. I did everything I was trained to do and I had all the support I had expected. But that didn’t make the trauma go away: the years of hyper-vigilance, being scared and uncomfortable even in my own home, being unable to sleep without a locked door; the failed relationships and fear of intimacy; the risk-seeking behaviors and disregard for the feelings of the people around me. It didn’t change the fact that, until very recently, I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone about what happened to me. Who would believe me? The perpetrator was a good sailor, a nice guy, well-liked by everyone. I heard this during the court-martial by those there to support him: that he had a lot going for him, and this event shouldn’t ruin his career. It’s been six years and I still can’t say his name. And even if people did believe me, what would that do to my reputation? I dreaded people walking on eggshells around me, fearful of my moods and reactions. I would rather be a miserable little tyrant than pitied. I didn’t want victimhood to define me, especially so early in my Navy career. I wanted to be understood on my own terms.
I had one of the best possible outcomes for my story, but I will still never be the same person I was before April 2014. My assailant took that away from me. But I also wasn’t beaten to death with a hammer and dismembered by a machete for speaking out about my experiences. I am a little worse for wear, but I am alive. I survived the worst thing to ever happen to me. I will continue to survive it.
It has been simultaneously deeply heartbreaking and hugely reassuring to see the outpouring of stories shared in the wake of Vanessa’s disappearance and tragic, terrible death. There is a persistent and pervasive commonality of female experience in the United States military, one punctuated by belittlement, harassment, assault, disbelief, and retaliation. I am willing to bet that almost every woman in the military has experienced some part of Vanessa’s story.
Me too. I am Vanessa Guillen.