“Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.” William Ernest Henley
Dealing with the loss of innocence can make you strong or break you. The fleeting nature of it, of innocence, only acts to reinforce its value, driving us to hold fast until we can no longer afford it. And once lost, it becomes a mocking shadow, rubbing your face in the foolishness of your own ignorant hope. As elusive as an exhaled breath, it stays just out of reach, close enough to whisper in your ear. Through this exchange, we often replace otherwise steadfast virtue with the more brash, base portions of our lesser selves, like scars on soft skin, less beautiful, less pure than at the start. Then there are those whose scars have become trophies.
The protagonist of this story was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, a hard working, intelligent, driven woman with a passion for her chosen career. She was eleven years old when she first realized she’d wanted to join the military, staring at the television as the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. She knew she would be what the military refers to as a “lifer,” serving her country with distinction and honor until her retirement decades later. So, fresh out of high school and eyes wide with potential, she became a sailor in the United States Navy. Born the oldest of four children, two sister and a brother, she had an innate sense of responsibility, so she chose the field of Masterat
Arms (MA), the police of the Navy.
In May of 2012, things couldn’t have been better. She was rated as an Early Promotable Sailor just after having picked up another rank, and was headed to what she thought would be a great duty station in the Bahamas.
After she arrived, she reported to her chief (senior noncommissioned officer), who was also fairly new to the island. He asked what her duties had been at her previous station and what strengths she had. She told him about her experience as a primary dispatcher for the base and was quite accomplished. He smiled at her, said they didn’t need dispatchers and set her post at the front gate on night shift because “they needed a woman on that shift.”
She began working with four men, all roughly her age, and after several weeks, the unit became as tightknit as any family, spending free time together and with the day shift. Until one day she heard that someone had trolled her Facebook account and had started a vicious, nasty rumor. She was shocked, angry, confused as to why anyone would want to start rumors about her in the first place. She did what anyone might do when they’re trying to fit in, when their own innocent naivety was getting in the way. She let it go, continuing her professional standard in her duties.
A few weeks later and there was a 4th of July party, grilling out, drinking, and generally acting American. She hadn’t had a drop of alcohol for several months prior and, not knowing better, didn’t make her own drinks. Consequently, she got more a than little bit drunk. Her memory of the following hours was splotchy. She didn’t remember much after she started drinking, only the foggy glimpse of two men halfcarrying, halfwalking her to her room and, a little while later, one of them holding her hair as she vomited. But none of this explained why she awoke the next morning, naked and in pain.
Words cannot fully describe the hurricane that went off in her mind. Terrified, scrambling for understanding, for solace, and barring that, escape. She ran immediately to the shower, trying to wash away the shame, doubt, fury and sense of intrusion. But the water just rolled off.
Even salty tears did nothing to wipe away the stain she felt, heartwracking sobs that were fair competition with the shower. Then, like so many with military training, she snapped back, pulling herself together to deal with what had happened. She was the new girl, so why would anyone believe her? What were the risks of speaking up?
Throughout the rest of her military career, she’d find out. Staying in the same company for several months afterward, she was batted around between the judgment of men and women she had once considered her peers and her seniors intentionally making her life more difficult, the understood threat that she posed dismissed under the idea that she was less of a human being for it. The albatross of her whistleblowing hung heavy around her neck, hindering her effectiveness and stifling her ability to advance in her career, corrupting her selfperception and leading her to what so many do when they’ve lost all control of their lives. She developed an eating disorder. Working out and starving herself, she found just enough empowerment to stay sane. Just enough to continue her duty, so that those around her knew her strength and through that, she could recognize it in herself.
But when someone recognized her strength, when someone chose to show their concern at her plight, her “knightinshiningarmor” would turn out to have ulterior motives, both carnal and base. And those were just the men. The women treated her even worse, casting sideways glances on the backs of disdain, afraid and angry that she would have the audacity to rock the boat of an already tenuous circumstance, that being a woman in the military. Even when they began the investigation, when she did her best to downplay the incident to NCIS so that she could be left to do her job, she was outright accused of sleeping her way up the ranks, called a “slut” and a “whore,” forever shamed that she would have the impertinence to speak out about her own rape.
So wherever she went, she found herself treated as a pariah, a stain that was too stubborn to be washed out. Without a support base, without having a place to turn or a home to feel safe, she inevitably gleaned panic attacks, with bouts of debilitating suicidal tendencies. But she was a fighter, refusing to give up her hope that she could affect positive change to her world. But one night, a man bicycled through the gate she was guarding, heedless of her calls to stop. Concerned that she would be yelled at for harassment, as she had previously, she let him go. The man on the bike later complained that no one was on post, so she was promptly brought up on charges through the Uniform Code of Military Justice. To the point, her chief accused her of “fucking on the job,” though she had not proven to be so morally flexible.
The berating didn’t stop, but instead became worse, her command intentionally giving her duty assignments that overlapped, ensuring that she was viewed as incompetent and calling her capacity to serve into question. This constant bombardment by the men and women she had sworn to work alongside eventually took its toll, her suicidal thoughts taking root, just waiting for that moment of weakness, or maybe courage, to pull the trigger. So she made the phone call she had been dreading, was put onto a helicopter for emergency transport to a hospital in Florida. Once she arrived in Jacksonville, even the psychologist viewed her with reticence, a look of impatience crossing his face while she spoke through racking sobs about the way she was treated and how none of it made sense to her.
Four months later and she was considered fit to go back to duty, eager to once more be given a chance to do her job and do it well, the progress she’d made bolstering her resolve. A new command and a fresh start. Her senior chief, a man of character who was on his last weeks to retirement, did everything in his power to ensure she didn’t leave the Navy under negative terms. He made sure to “accidentally” step into the right offices to get her a job working with canines, the symbiotic nature of dealing with dogs acting as both training and therapy. She completed her qualification for kennel support with flying colors, needing only patience for an open spot in the academy, given that funding was limited. Beyond that, everything was going well. Until her senior chief left.
The man that replaced him was aware of her history, was aware of the trauma she’d claimed and the indictment it had on his idea of the military. With a work ethic that matched his sloppy appearance, he had gained just enough power to abuse it, sucking up to his superiors while treating his subordinates like servants. Especially the women. This was made all the more frustrating because he didn’t take care of his canine, preferring to lie on paperwork rather than put the hours in to train it. At one point, while they were training, he grabbed a handful of our protagonist’s posterior, immediately throwing her back into the tumult of her past, leaving her shocked and afraid… again. When she had originally been taken advantage of when she was in the Bahamas, it happened several more times to other women on the base, so she felt a sense of duty to do what was right. She didn’t want it to ever happen again.
When she approached the other female in her chain of command, the response was one she’d come to expect. “In a training scenario, that sort of stuff happens. It’s okay,” and she should stop being “another dramatic female.” However, she had an obligation to go to the Master Chief to report it. Once this was made public, she was kicked out of the canine unit, forcing her to leave the dog to which she had developed an attachment.
This marked the end of her military career, her steadfast attitude laid low by a system and stigma that would not take steps toward rectifying the injustice dealt to her. And even then, her command made it difficult for her to leave, refusing to allow her the time to get all the signatures she needed during the process of getting out. And to add insult to injury, the man that grabbed her ass, the one that didn’t care about his own canine or the wellbeing of his subordinates, won the award of Sailor of the Year.
Years later and she has found the strength to voice her trauma, taking up a position that was denied her while she was in the Navy. She has spoken up at the Judicial Proceedings Panel in Washington DC, volunteering her story to promote a positive change, her work ethic now redirected toward reformation, rather than security. The council asked questions like “What if we made it easier for you to get out? If, upon filing a claim, we smoothed the process of you leaving?” Among the eight men and women on the panel, two from each major branch of service, all of them had the same answer. “No. This was our career. We shouldn’t have to get out of the military because of what somebody else did to us.” They said this because they found pride in their own fortitude, strength where it had once been stripped from them.
Their scars have become trophies. Where they could have chosen to compromise their own morals and ethics, exchanging the hope in their principled fortitude for the assurance that comes with “getting along with the crowd,” they retained their own pure natures. They held passionately to their own ideals, to their own hope, bloody, but unbowed. Where things like innocence can backfire, leaving us questioning what we held dear, mocking us with what we might have been, she discovered resilience. In dealing with her lost innocence, she found the depths of her own strength.