“I am a fighter and a survivor and I’m telling my story to empower other women to find their strength, their voice and their footing.”

August 2002. I graduated basic training and the first part of my Advanced Individual Training. I was granted my wish to do my clinicals at Madigan Army Medical Center. We had a small class of five and we sailed through the remainder of schooling. The only thing about, at this point, was that all my classmates were reservists and they would be going back to their civilian lives and drill one weekend a month and who knew if I would ever see them again.I loved the ARMY. I loved the structure, the discipline, the food wasn’t as bad as I thought and most of all I loved the people I had met along the way. We all bled together, sweat together, cried together and bonded like siblings.

The hardest part for me at this point was knowing that most of these people, who were now my brothers and sisters, would either stay in the reserves as careerists, or get out after their contract.  And then, knowing we were heading into a war and some of my comrades would never set foot on American soil again. Despite all the negatives, there were enough positives that I had made my mind up to go career. I even wanted to go GREEN to GOLD and become an officer as a nurse. I loved the ARMY and I will always love the ARMY, before November of 2002.I was permanently stationed at Ft. Lewis and moved from one end of the parking lot to the other. At this point I had made some “close” friends of the LPN students who would be sticking around longer than my fellow surgical tech buddies. On rotation at the hospital I was working in our sister department on the swing shift and always got back to the barracks at 2300 hours. (11 o’clock to you civilians) My “buddies” were out front drinking beers and I had stopped by to have one with them.

After about an hour, they invited me into their transition room because they were out processing and getting ready to head back to their reserve units and regular life. Without a second thought, I went into their room (there were 6 of them) and we cracked open another beer. Hanging out, laughing, playing dominos and having a great time as usual when out of nowhere one of them turned off the lights and turned the music up and locked the door. I had no idea what was going on at the time until they grabbed me and threw me on the bed.

They used irons as ligatures for my ankles and wrists, stuffed a sock in my mouth and used a belt around my head to keep the sock in place and then they tore my clothes off. They poured beer all over me, slapped me in the face, one even choked me and then they all took their turn having sex with me while the next one watched and cheered on the current asshole on top.Six grown men in their early 20’s against me. I’m 5’4’’ and at the time I weighed 145 pounds and I was tied to bed and gagged while six large men took their turn raping me. I fought, I squirmed, and I tried to beg them to stop, after the fourth one, I shut down. I tried to imagine it wasn’t happening and that I was home with my family. Nothing in my life, up until this point, had ever been this horrific. When they were finished, they released me, threw me on the floor with my tattered clothes on my back I crawled away. I took the back stairs up to my room across the parking lot. I locked the door as I sank down into a ball of what felt like nothing and cried the entire night.It was 0730 on a Thursday. With ligature markings on my neck, wrists and others not visible due to my uniform, a purplish cheek from multiple hands grabbing and smacking it and eyes full of tears I sat down.

He looked at me from across his desk with disgust in his eyes. Evaluating me with a smug look he asked, “why are you here, private?”

“To report a rape, First Sergeant.”

“Who was raped?”

“I was…”

Silence for several minutes before a large, labored breath in…

“Well soldier, that cannot be true. You see, things like that do not happen in today’s ARMY, and even if they did, girls like you are asking for it.”

That’s when I realized as a ‘soldier’ I was officially considered ‘property.’  And that was the day I lost what remained of my innocence. But it was also the day I decided to fight back, the day I stopped following orders, and the day I took charge and began to fight for me.

It took me six months, a Naval lawyer and a failed drug test (for marijuana, under the guidance of my lawyer because a psychological and medical discharges were not options) to show the ARMY that I was not their ‘property.’ I fought tooth and nail to win myself back, and on March 24, 2003 my discharge orders came while I was scrubbed in at work. I was relieved immediately and my NCOIC took me around post for a week to out process.He asked me why I was ‘throwing’ my career away for weed. I explained to him that getting a Chapter 14 (failure to adapt to military way of life) with a general under honorable discharge was certainly better to me than serving out the remainder of my contract among men who were worse than the terrorists that attack our country.

I looked at him as we shared a Newport and said “Sergeant, how are you suppose to keep the people of the country safe and worry free if you’re constantly having to look over your shoulder at your fellow soldiers and wonder if they’re going to be the next man to rape a female and get away with it? How can those of us who signed up to serve be of any use if we’re terrified of those we serve along side with? And when was it decided that it was okay to treat women like property? I’m a human being and I have rights. They are the very rights I signed up to serve so that they would be protected, and mine have been stripped and taken away because I’m in the service.

That isn’t right, and this isn’t what I signed up to do. If the ARMY can’t keep me safe, then who the hell can? I can, and that’s why I’m getting out.”He looked at me, put his arm around my shoulder and said “C’mon, let’s get you done so you can go home.”I’ve been out of the ARMY now for 12 years. It hasn’t been until the last three years, with the help of regular therapy, that I have been okay telling others my story. I am not trying to get any attention, backlash, etc. I am just trying to bring awareness to the subject of rape in the military.It happens, and it happens more than people know. It’s a subject that’s swept under the rug and never talked about with the public. The fact is, it shouldn’t be happening at all.

Everyone who signs the contract and wears the uniform is there for one reason; to serve and protect one another and to fight for our rights. So why is it when some don the uniform and fall into the ranks that they feel they are above others and that women especially, no longer have equal rights?I don’t know if I’ll ever know the answer to that question, but I do know that I can voice my story in hopes that it helps other women voice theirs. There is strength in numbers and I just want any of my fellow female soldiers to know, you’re not alone. We’re out there too, and we’re surviving and making the best life we can because we refuse to be a victim. My life has had many ups and downs, but the best time of my life was when I started therapy and actually started coping with the trauma of what happened to me.I never realized just how crippling it was emotionally. I’ve been with the same therapist for almost 3 years and it has truly changed my life for the better. I can cope with what happened to me and finally make peace with it. I’m not willing to forgive those involved and that’s okay. I’m also not willing to forgive the lack of concern I experienced 13 years ago, but I have finally forgiven myself for holding onto so much hurt and anger. I am a fighter and a survivor and I’m telling my story to empower other women to find their strength, their voice and their footing.

Photos Tracy Sydor