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Rape: a personal perspective

NAVAL AIR STATION FORT WORTH JOINT RESERVE BASE, Texas -- I was raped in December 1990.

I've never kept this part of my life a secret. I guess it's because nothing could ever change a moment in my life over which I had no control. However, it took me this long to consider telling my story in such a public forum, even after becoming a Victim's Advocate in 2006 when the 301st Fighter Wing's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program began.

As the years passed, it seemed the possible benefits from sharing this experience began to outweigh the reasons for not writing an article. I realized my experience touches three of the most important focuses of the Air Force and Department of Defense: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Total Force Fitness (Resilience), and the "Wingman" concept.

So many stories and editorials have been written on these programs and I question how much of an impact they made on service members, considering the rising number of reported sexual assaults and suicides in the military. I wonder if it's because people have a hard time relating to sexual assault, suicide and other traumatic experiences if there are no connections to these events in their personal lives.

I never thought I would be raped, but it happened. I don't want anyone to read my story as a source of inspiration because others have experienced more trauma than I probably could have endured. But I want people to understand that we all have choices in our life. Even when we face the worst difficulties life can offer, we can choose to be vigilant, and we can choose to be resilient. And, in support of others, we can choose to be sincerely caring and compassionate ... a "wingman."

Some of what I share might be uncomfortable to read for people who survived similar experiences or were close to someone who did. The topic itself also could be uncomfortable for those who have no experience with sexual assault. So I am trying to tell my story in a way that corresponds to relevant support programs, particularly the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program and the concepts of Total Force Fitness and "Wingman." The Air Force and DoD put these programs in place to prevent sexual assault, help people recover from their experiences, and urge each of us to more proactively support each other.

My attack happened a week before Christmas. It was around 2 a.m. and I had just arrived home after a holiday gathering with friends. As I put my key in the door, I noticed the screen to my kitchen window was lying on the ground below. I dismissed the screen and walked inside, where I realized my home had been broken into. Rather than immediately turn around, get back into my car, and go find help, I matter-of-factly walked around assessing the damage and feeling annoyed that I had been robbed.

I walked into my bedroom to find, oddly enough, all my expensive jewelry scattered on the bed, but three containers with pocket change were taken along with the pillow case from my bed. I finished the brief walk-through by glancing into the spare bedroom which included a sliding glass door at the opposite end of the room that opened into a screened-in patio. The floor-length, thermal curtains were open and the door looked intact. As I turned to return to the living room to call the police the attacker suddenly leapt from behind the curtains and pushed me forward into the bathroom across the hall.

The bathroom was as wide as the tub with the toilet and the double sink length-wise beside it. Pinned by the toilet to the left of me and the tub behind me, I fought him off as best as I could in that narrow space. I tried to scratch his eyes, but I remember that didn't seem to faze him. It seemed either adrenalin or drugs made him immune to anything I might do. I tried to think of other ways to resist and escape as quickly as possible. One of my most immediate fears was being knocked unconscious, and I knew if I tried to fight him from my position, he could strike my head against the tub or the toilet bowl. I thought about grabbing the cuticle scissors on the curio stand next to me and stabbing him. But I didn't think that would be enough to let me escape and he could use the scissors against me. I knew for certain that whatever move I made had to be enough to knock him out or give me a chance to get away.

I remember asking him over and over again why he was doing this. I even insulted his manhood at one point. The entire time he was in my home, he only said one thing to me. But it wasn't an answer to my questions.

I don't remember how or when, but somehow I finally got the chance to run for help. I only got as far as opening the front door when he grabbed me. That's where we struggled most, and where I sustained much of my bruising. Thankfully, visible signs of the struggle were in areas easily covered by clothes, so I didn't have people asking what happened in the following days.

To this day I can't say for certain how long the attack lasted. But as soon as he left I locked the door, called the police, and then called the couple who just left the party with me. The pain in my head and back were starting to become unbearable, but I couldn't sit still. While I waited for anyone to arrive, I checked all the doors and windows, tried to account for what had been taken -- anything that might help the police find evidence faster and anything that kept me moving. I could have gone to the neighbors, but I was afraid to leave my home.

The details of what happened fade in and out when I think about that night. I can't even remember whether or not I switched the lights on as I entered my home. Yet I still feel some of what I did back then. I remember the wetness on my fingertips when I tried to scratch his eyes. I remember the taste of the dirty sock he wore over the fist he jammed in my mouth. And I remember the fear of him coming back before the police arrived. For a few months after the attack, fear brought on by those memories seemed to have complete control over me. But as I continued my recovery process, I had to choose to not let those feelings control me anymore.

Programs like SAPR had not yet been developed, and concepts like resilience or the "Wingman" were not yet discussed. Now these programs are available, and my experience makes me appreciate everything the Air Force and DoD are doing to help military members with sexual assaults, suicidal feelings, traumatic experiences and basically, their overall welfare.

If you haven't actually given any time to understanding the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Total Force Fitness or Wingman program and concepts, I urge you to take a look at them now - if not for you, then for someone who may someday really need you!

(Editor's note: Dermarderosian-Smith is also a traditional reservist.)

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