36″ x 24″ • Oil on aluminum panel
Michelle Rosenthal still carries the weight of the trauma she experienced as a private in the US Army as a result of her commanders’ disgusting and hateful words. Her resilience has allowed her to turn her horrible experience into something beautiful by helping other survivors of abuse as a paralegal and later as a witness victim liaison. Michelle shared that when supporting survivors of abuse, you have to look deep to get to the root of the problem. This is what I tried to express in Michelle’s portrait.
At first sight, this painting looks like the portrait of a woman posing happily with her beloved dog. Michelle smiles at the viewer in front a rich, bright yellow background. The longer you examine the painting, you notice how the bright yellow color darkens as your gaze shifts downward. The body of the dog rises from the dark, his eyes intently on you, one ear pricked back, as if waiting for Michelle’s command. Look even closer, and you will find Michelle’s own words scratched onto the panel: “I’m ok, I make myself be ok.” She hides her pain behind a beautiful smile, feeling safe with Onyx, her guardian dog by her side. “This dog is not a pet.”
by Katrina Byrd
Five years after Vietnam ended, back when gas was $1.19 per gallon, speakers bumped with Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five, the Evan’s family was scratching and surviving, back in January `1980, twenty year old Michelle Rosenthal entered the U. S. Army.
Michelle: I had just turned 20. But after graduating from high school, I went to college for a couple of months. And then I decided, yeah, I better go ahead and join the military.
Interviewer: You were just a baby!
Michelle wanted training. She wanted to meet new people. She wanted to travel around the world. Was Michelle’s dream of a military career realistic? Was she ready to start a career in the mle domineering military? Probably not, but like many courageous people in history, Michelle did it anyway.
Originally from Chicago, Michelle excelled in Math during high school. She also had a great attitude and a wonderful work ethic. All of these things were a plus for anyone with a desire to serve their country. Michelle also wanted to keep the family tradition of military service alive. Her father and her uncle served.
Michelle: At that time, not a lot of women had been serving in the military, at least not from our family.
Michelle’s decision to serve her country, put her face to face with a situation that changed her life forever. A hard worker, excellent in Math and one of six women in her Florida unit, Michelle excelled. She rose above everyone in her unit. Her hard work and dedication to doing a good job made her stand out. She kept her space neat and was always prepared for inspection.
Michelle: I. G. Inspection.
Interviewer: I. G. Inspection?
Michelle: Inspector General.
Interviewer: Oh. I see.
Michelle You know, all the units do it once a year…they set out all your equipment, soldiers, wall lockers, dress, right dress, equipment, everything is out.”
No one understood how this young woman always passed I. G. Inspection and no one understood why she was always happy.
Michelle: I was so happy to be there.
In the early eighties, the military declared. A “woman pause.” A abuse was placed in the number of women accepted into the military. After a decade of women fighting for equality, Michelle made the courageous decision to serve her country. In Florida, she served as a Field Artillery Surveyor.
Michelle: So as a surveyor, we pretty much told the tankers where to fire.
Interviewer: That sounds very complicated. Weren’t you scared?
Michelle: I just did my job.
Interviewer: She didn’t just do her job, she was accurate. I bet the male soldiers had something to say about that.
Michelle: They were shocked. The male soldiers were just shocked that I knew what I was doing.
Because the battery was outstanding and because there were six women in this battery, it attracted the attention of the local news station. One day a reporter was coming for a visit. Like everyone else, Michelle changed into her best clothes- pants shirt, and jacket.
Michelle: I looked professional.
Interviewer: Girl, I know you did!
Michelle was the first to enter the day room. She was nervous and excited. Would the reporter talk to her? What questions would she ask? Would Michelle be on television? These questions swam in her head. She noticed her commander coming toward her.
Michelle: My Commander approached then said, “I’ll throw you on that pool table and spread your legs wide…and get my rocks off. Then I’ll flip you over and do the same thing.”
It was what he said and how he said it. His confidence. The way he cocked his head to the side. His filthy grin. The way he kept his eyes on her savoring every second of terror reflected in her eyes.
Michelle: No one had never talked like that to me before.
His words flowed like red hot coals landing heavy on her naïve shoulders.
Michelle: I was scared, I almost peed.
His words took the form of bullets. They fired at her daily. They played over and over in her head ripping away at her integrity, her identity and her sanity. Everything was tainted by his filthy words – the day room, the pool table, her pretty pantsuit, her confidence in herself and her outstanding work. Every time he saw her, he reminded her of that day. He continued his attempts at breaking her. Shame and guilt haunted her. She felt she should’ve done something to stand up for herself.
Michelle: I coward down.
Interviewer: Naw, honey. You bossed up.
Michelle: When you’re from Chicago, people think you’re a badass. But, I couldn’t take care of myself.
Narrator: You are a badass!
Michelle I was still a private. Bare chested. Nothing on the collar. No mosquito wings. Nothing. Just straight up private.
The commander’s words were cruel, sadistic and terrifying. Would Michelle move forward with her desire to serve her country? Would she be crushed by his words forever?
Michelle stood tall like a sturdy oak as she put one foot in front of the other each day. She was afraid, but she didn’t let fear stop her. Every time she saw the commander she would shake.
Michelle: And every time he saw me, he would figure out a way to say something to me.
Michelle took that Indina Jones’ leap of faith and took her life back. After she shared her story with her mother and brother, they became her support system as she advanced In her military service. Once reclassified, Michelle became a paralegal where she gave other survivors’ the opportunity to share their stories. She encouraged and supported them as they pursued legal action. She gave them hope.
Michelle’s experience gave her the strength to help others in her Military career and in her business career.
Michelle: My advice to others… when something happens to you, that you’re uncomfortable with, talk to someone about it. Don’t carry the burden. It’s a heavy load to feel alone and unbelieved. Tell somebody.