I Believe You

By Shannon Martin ’98 and a Silent Sister

After Michele posted her article about her experience with Herndon and her efforts to change the culture and climate around her to prevent that kind of behavior, the Sisterhood of Mother B received some great feedback from our followers.  We also received some heartbreaking accounts from our Sisters. Two weeks ago, you read one Silent Sister’s story and her push to improve opportunities for victims to receive the counseling they need. This week, I want to share another Silent Sister’s story.  I am sharing this one, because she and I truly believe that there are Sisters out there who need to hear what she wrote to me and my response. I warn you that this account contains graphic content, and it is difficult to read.

Tuesday afternoon, the day “Turn the Tide” posted on the website, I received this email:

Hi there,

I saw the post on FB and the encouraging words to share stories. I have never shared this story with another person, mostly because I’ve been so ashamed that it ever happened. I didn’t want to be labeled as one of “those girls” at the academy, and I largely blamed (and if I’m honest, I still blame) myself for what happened.

As a plebe, I struggled a bit with finding my place in the grand scheme of things. I wanted people to like me so much that I often lost sight of liking myself. In any case, things were going about as well as probably any plebe’s life does when one of my classmates on the hockey team had one of his 1/C mentors stop by while we were working on homework. He was a Battalion Striper. He was really helpful with the subject. He was cute, and he had a really kind smile. I was completely enamored, and that was probably extremely obvious.

I think it’s important to say, up to this point in my life, the most sexual thing I had ever experienced was kissing a boy on the lips. My dad was a senior non-commissioned officer; I lived a pretty sheltered life.

It’s been so long that I don’t remember the details of how he first invited me to meet him in his car. I just remember the rush of excitement that came with an older guy actually being interested in me in spite of all the negative and derogatory things I heard about women from my own male classmates. He said he thought I was interesting, and he wanted to talk more in private, but people would get the wrong idea if they saw us in the hall. So, I met him in his car in the 1/C lot.

At first, it really was nothing. We talked, and I told him about all of my struggles with being a plebe, and he actually listened and offered advice. Before I went back to my room, he leaned in to give me a quick kiss, and while I was surprised, I have to admit that I wasn’t altogether displeased. It was exciting and after all and, if he is on Battalion Staff, there couldn’t have been too much wrong with it (dumb thought, I know). I just couldn’t believe that a 1/C actually liked me.

I went back to my room giddy and confused. I was afraid of getting in trouble, but if he wasn’t afraid, it couldn’t have been bad right? Did this make me a slut? What would my classmates think if they ever found out? Oh man, I must be pretty special for a cute 1/C to be interested in me. I kept my mouth shut – and later that night, he advised me to keep my mouth shut, too. He wanted to continue talking to me, he said, and if I spilled the beans, we wouldn’t be able to do that. He wanted to teach me how to kiss.

The next time he invited me out, I was a lot more shy and afraid of getting caught. I told him that I liked him, but it wasn’t allowed. “We’re just having fun,”  he said. Then, he told me that he understood my concerns, so we’d go somewhere that wasn’t an issue. Before I knew it, we were driving across the bridge, past the familiar roads I had run down with my company to get to the obstacle course. It was late at night and very dark – he turned down into winding roads that were lined sparsely with big houses. To this day, I have no idea where we actually went. I just remember looking at these houses and feeling like they were quietly judging me for all the dumb decisions I’d made to get to this point. He parked on the side of the road in a long driveway, and my chest was tight with anxiety and fear.

He kissed me and said we’d only go as far as I wanted, but it was pretty clear to me that I didn’t have a whole lot of options. What I wanted to do was go back to the Hall and forget that I’d ever let myself be convinced to do any of this. But this is fun, he kept saying.

I feel I should warn you, that I’m just going to be graphic here.

I only have bits and pieces of this night. I remember being insecure when he started grabbing my chest, and I remember thinking that even if I didn’t do this, he’d get angry and tell everyone that I was a bitch. He would tell everyone everything about this, and even though I hadn’t gone all the way, I’d still be a slut. He reached his hands into my pants, and I was mortified. I had no idea what he was trying to do. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I remember being squeezed under the steering with his dick in my mouth.  A car drove by us –  the headlights illuminated the inside of the car, and I was horrified about what was happening, and my heart was beating out of my chest that we were caught and I was in so much trouble and what the hell was I doing? He came in my mouth. I don’t remember anything else.

I was humiliated and ashamed. After that night, we never talked at the academy again. The next I heard from him was a random message he sent when I was a 2/C on PROTRAMID in San Diego – he was stationed there, and he wanted to meet up. I knew what he wanted – as a 2/C I had learned just a tiny bit better.

Before I went to the Academy, I used to always hear that you can only be two things at USNA as a girl: a bitch or a slut. I had solidly landed myself in that second category. I didn’t tell a soul, I couldn’t tell a soul. My classmates already thought I was a slut because my male lab partners would do work in my room, I didn’t need drastic confirmation of the fact. And I was a slut. For years, that’s what I told myself. I let myself become one of the very girls we’d been warned about.

I’m so angry for feeling that way. I went back to teach at an academy, to mentor young women. And too often, I heard stories from the upperclass girls about how the 1/C target the plebe girls. At first you feel smug, then you’re confused, then you realize that you’ve been used. At least, that’s the story I heard from my young ladies. And I tell them over and over again, it’s not your fault – you have no idea how vulnerable you are. The people who abuse you know exactly what they’re doing. I say this to them: “You should never have been put in that position. Do not blame yourself.”

And despite knowing that and believing that for them, I still can’t believe it for myself. No one will believe that this is a story of victimhood; I don’t believe it myself. I was an idiot. I was a fool. I was stupid. I should’ve fought harder. I should’ve tried to stop it. I should’ve never agreed to meet him. I should not have enjoyed his attention. I should not have led him on. I should not have invited this upon myself.

That’s what I tell myself.

I’m not even sure what I’m sharing this for. I’ve felt alienated from my class since the day that this happened. I’m convinced that if they knew, if they knew who I was and tied this story to me, it would only solidify whatever negative thoughts they already have about me. I’m embarrassed to share this story. I’m writing this to you, I guess, because it’d be nice for someone else to know – I don’t know who’s reading this and I can’t see your face or tell your judgment. I just needed someone else to know. So thanks for listening to this really pathetic story.

As you can imagine, my heart was breaking for the Plebe she was and the woman that she has become. The courage it must have taken to teach at a commissioning source and mentor young women – some who came to her to report similar circumstances. All I could think was that she needs to know some very important things, so I wrote her back.  And this next part is for all of you who have been victims of assault – every single one of you.

Silent Sister,

I believe you. You are not now nor have you ever been a slut. And being enamored of a boy and wanting him to like you can’t make you one. That man isolated you and touched you in ways you didn’t want and forced you to have oral sex with with him. He used his status both as a firstie and as a striper to paint you into a corner. Who could you tell? What could you do?

You were a victim. And going to a boy’s car is not consent for even a kiss. You know this, and you believe it for every young victim who has walked through your door. You need to try to believe it for yourself. I’m not a therapist or a counselor, but I am glad you reached out with your story.

Tomorrow, I am posting some resources for counseling (including the anonymous kind that doesn’t go in your record). You might consider reaching out—they can offer tools for dealing with sexual trauma, the self blame, the guilt, PTSD if it exists. Just know there are resources if you want or need them.

Also, thank you for the work you have done with young people seeking a commission. It is important work, as you know from your own experiences and feelings. Those young people need the reminder that sexual assault is not their fault. Bad decisions should not result in rape.

I am taking this email as your opportunity to tell someone. If you want any of it to be shared more widely, we can do that, and I can make it so it can’t be traced to you, but for now I am considering it as just a friend confiding in me. . . Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.

Sincerely,
Shannon

And this story would have stayed between us.  I would have continued to talk to her if she needed it, but I respected her privacy and that this sharing was brand new.  I suspected that she needed the control of having the experience feel like her fault. The loss of that control and the vulnerability it thrusts on a victim are overwhelming.  At first, there is comfort in feeling like you could have controlled the situation, but this is a heavy burden and difficult to bear. Later, she wrote me back and asked me to share her story – our story:

Shannon,

Your response means the world to me. Thank you for understanding, and you might not be a therapist, but I think for years I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me that it wasn’t all my fault. I was raised very much to take responsibility for my own actions, and for such a long time, I tried to do that with this moment. I think I will struggle with convincing myself for a while yet, but this is a step in the right direction, and I’m really grateful for just the opportunity to share with someone who didn’t react in the way I have always expected.

As for sharing, if it could be kept anonymous then (this is a big leap for me), but as a mentor I can see the merit of sharing something that very well could have happened or be happening to many young women. I never want the young ladies I interact with to carry the same tormenting questions that I have for years – was that actually assault? Was it my fault? Will anyone believe me? In that vein, I think the biggest part I’d like to share is your response to my story. I think that there could be lots of women who feel the way I do, and I think it could be very important for them to hear the same exact words you’ve offered me.

Thank you so much, Shannon. It’s been such a relief just to get this story into the air and out of my head, and I really can’t say what it means to have someone support me.

Have a wonderful day,
A Silent Sister

I’m a pilot.  It is a regular part of my job to dissect what happened on a mission, where things went wrong and what we can do better in the future.  It is a normal part of my life, trained into me – as I think it is for many types of work in the Navy and Marine Corps. We should not let our need to figure out what went wrong equate to something being our fault. The fault is definitely on the person in the power position who isolated a woman and assaulted her.

We can try to minimize our risk to prevent assault, but the real place where we can stop the chain of events is to stop the rapist.  To change the culture so that perpetrators like this one are not the ones selected for positions of authority. We need to stop saying, I know he’s kind of a creep, but he is a tactical genius. When we see our peers in positions of power laying the groundwork for a “relationship” with a large power differential, we need to speak up.  While we do this work, we must continue with our efforts to support victims of sexual assault by listening, understanding and providing resources. For our Sister who shared this story, I can’t say it enough. I believe you. This was not your fault, and counseling is available if you need it.

My inbox is always open to lend an ear – and I do not publish everything that comes through it – if you need a sounding board or advice, or you just need to share your story, write me at sisterhoodofmotherb.editor@gmail.com.

4 thoughts on “I Believe You

  1. Thank you, silent sister. You are not alone. I too had a similar experience. Last year, after decades, and after hearing Dr Ford’s testimony, I finally decided to claim my story. I wrote it down and submitted a restricted report to the USNA Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. I asked them to ensure leadership knew it happened decades ago, but that I felt I had no option when I was a midshipman. By reporting the incident, I finally was able to acknowledge that it wasn’t my fault, and instead of looking at myself with shame and judgment, to feel compassion and begin to comfort the young, vulnerable woman I had been.

    • So sorry for your experience. So glad you found a way to claim your story. Thank you for sharing a little piece of yourself.

  2. It is very sad yet helpful to hear of these stories. I was assaulted and then harassed in the hall for a while by a firstie in my company when I was a plebe. I even think some of my second class may have interpreted it as an inappropriate relationship and thought I needed extra training (flaming). Through it all I thought I deserved everything because it was all my fault. It wasn’t until this year that I was taking a DoD Sexual Assault Survey that I actually responded “yes” to the question had I ever been assaulted. I sat at my desk and agonized over the answer for tens of minutes before submitting. I also said on the survey that I had never reported it before, and to the question would I report if I were ever assaulted again I said no, because I know I wouldn’t. It is still not worth it to the victim, at least from my perspective. I could not survive the reporting fallout, especially right after it has happened. It’s taken me 24 years just to answer an anonymous survey truthfully, knowing it is not going to go anywhere or do anything, just for myself to say yes to myself, this happened. And to have that courage it took people like all of you sharing your stories, too, knowing we were not alone and it was not our fault.

    • Thank you for your comment and sharing some important things. I’m glad you were able to report on the survey. I’m sorry the DoD (and our society) is still not a place where victims/survivors are comfortable reporting their assault. It is important that we highlight that this is a real problem. So tired of hearing, “Well, why did he/she wait so long to report it.” Sometimes, admitting something to ourselves is hard enough – admitting it to others is a whole new level. I’m glad you have taken that giant step.

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