Second Class Trauma by Elisha D. Morrow

Coast Guard Sailor Elisha D. Morrow is a staunch advocate for Service Members who are victims of Military Sexual Trauma. She is also a survivor dealing with PTSD. This is a struggle in itself. As the author states, “There is no Service Medal for being a survivor of MST. Nothing to give your grandchildren. There is no feeling that what you went through was for a greater good of the country you served… It’s just hollow and empty.” We believe that her story will educate and inspire readers.

Prior to joining the Coast Guard I had never heard of the term Military Sexual Trauma (MST). I certainly would have never dreamed that by the end of my boot camp experience I would become a survivor of MST and the beginning of a horrible story in which myself and three of my fellow shipmates would be victimized. Ours is a story that our military has allowed to be repeated too often. I was the first. Hand chosen by our Lead Company Commander to be the “house mouse” (meaning I was to clean his office), I was often alone with him at night when all of my fellow recruits had retired for the evening. It didn’t take long before the abuse began, with him constantly making sexual comments, watching every move I made, and having me take my hair down. To make matters worse, he soon turned his attention to my fellow recruit, juggling time between being alone with me in one office one night and having her clean a separate unoccupied office the next. I felt horrible, as though by not entertaining his advances I had caused him to victimize someone else. I waited, realizing he was a predator and knowing that a sexual assault was inevitable. As it turned out, it was, as his next victim would find out.

Somehow, with the support of our other shipmates, we survived Cape May and tried to move on with our careers, thinking that silence was the only option. We went out into the fleet and another company moved in. A chance for another victim. A chance for another woman to be victimized. Her abuse started not unlike mine and the other members had, but it didn’t stop where it had with us. I believe emboldened by the fact that he hadn’t been caught for the crimes he had committed with us, he felt he was unstoppable and that no one would ever speak out. He would ask her if she masturbated, telling her that he just had and asking her sexual preferences, wanted to know if she ever considered being with girls. He began exposing himself to her, insisting that she watch. Eventually, he asked her if she used birth control. Shaken, she asked him why he wanted to know. The following night, she found out the intent behind his question. Telling her his wife would no longer sleep with him, he gave her a direct order to remove her clothing and then he proceeded to engage in sexual intercourse with her. She, like us, was terrified into silence and the cycle of graduating and a new company/victim coming in continued. His last victim, for whatever reason, received the same treatment as I and the first victim had, but was never physically attacked. Although the reason why was never said, it is something for which I am truly grateful to God. She too felt that there was no option and rather than causing one of her fellow shipmates to endure the same abuse that she was experiencing, she thought it better to suffer in silence.

Eventually, we found our voice. In the late fall of 2010, I made a call to Coast Guard Investigative Services and around the same time two of the other survivors (the woman that went through boot camp with me and the woman from his last company) went into their local CGIS office to tell our stories. An investigation ensued and in the fall of this year we attended the court martial of our former company commander. Sitting side by side, the four of us, who looked more like sisters (all blonde, all petite 5’3″) than shipmates in the Coast Guard listened as the judge issued a bad conduct discharge and 12 months confinement for the crimes that he had committed. While the judge issued the maximum punishment, we were devastated knowing that he would not be tried for sexual assault based on the current guidelines of Article 120 of the UCMJ (please see our petition for change of this law by going to < ).

I had thoroughly expected to be able to move on after the trial and pretend it had never happened. What I didn’t realize was that the more than three years that I had suppressed what had happened was about to come boiling back to the surface. Since the court martial, I have struggled with anxiety attacks, insomnia, nightmares, and depression. Worst of all has been the guilt. There is not an hour of any given day I don’t relive what happened and think that maybe if I had done something different that I could have saved the other victims that came after me. While I have not been formally diagnosed with anything at this time (I am awaiting my first visit with the VA), I do expect to eventually be diagnosed with something anxiety related, though I would not venture to assume what it might end up being. My husband, family, friends, and faith have all had a hand in keeping me grounded. I thank God for them.

I think one of the most difficult aspects of MST for me has been that I feel that my trauma is second class. It is a struggle to feel that you are worthy to stand beside someone who has been through “so much more” than you have. There is no Service Medal for being a survivor of MST. Nothing to give your grandchildren. There is no feeling that what you went through was for a greater good of the country you served… It’s just hollow and empty. I believe my fellow survivor summed it up best when she said, “PTSD is watching your best friend die in the sandbox, not this.” While I know this is not true at all, it is a common theme that I have seen over and over again in speaking with fellow MST survivors… The feeling that you don’t deserve a diagnosis PTSD, depression, or anxiety. That you aren’t worthy to be branded with a disorder that “war heroes” have.

In spite of the toll that this experience has taken, I will say that the valuable lesson that I learned was the realization that adversity gives birth to fighters. This experience has moved me to take the up the torch of this cause and work to change the way that not only the law is written, but the way the military handles these cases in general. There is no way I can cover the enormity military’s mishandlings of our case in one blog post. There are so many changes that need to be made, sometimes it is difficult to know what task to set about next. If I ever have a daughter, I hope that someday the military will be a place where members don’t have to fear those that serve alongside them. Until I see it happen, I will continue to fight for change. Unlike some, when I said honor, respect, and devotion to duty, I meant it with all my heart and I will continue to live those values as best I can in my civilian life.

The Arts and the Military: Dominic Fredianelli, by Tara Leigh Tappert

The work to launch the Arts and the Military/Arts, Military + Healing (AMH) week in the Washington, DC area this past May is beginning to do what we all had hoped it would do — the event is inspiring new and exciting ventures throughout the country, as well as bringing tremendous press coverage to the work of Combat Paper Project.

On view this fall were two Combat Paper Project exhibitions in galleries at two different campuses of the University of Maryland:

Click here and here to view the gallaries.

Denise Merringolo, a public history professor who teaches at the Baltimore campus, attended the AMH event at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and School of Art + Design.  Moved by the Combat Paper exhibition on view at the Corcoran, shortly thereafter she began pursuing the possibility of a show on the UMBC campus for the fall, 2012 semester.  Her show then propelled Jason Hughes, a student curator and artist on the College Park campus, to request another Combat Paper show for the Stamp Gallery in the student union.  On December 5, 2012, an amazing critique of the UMBC exhibit, written by Bret Mccabe, was published in the Baltimore City Paper.

Mccabe began his review with a piece created by veteran/artist Dominic Fredanielli who participated in the Corcoran’s Combat Paper Project workshop this past May.  The genesis of Dom’s involvement in the  Arts and the Military/AMH event began nearly a year earlier when I attended the 2011 Silverdocs film festival and saw the Emmy award winning Where Soldiers Come From.

Set in a small town in Northern Michigan, and in the mountains of Afghanistan, the film follows the four-year journey of childhood friends, including Dom, who return as 23-year-old veterans dealing with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD.  While this documentary beautifully captures the coming of age of these young men, there is another story woven like a “red thread” through the film — the artwork of Dominic Fredianelli and how he uses art making to cope with his war experiences.  Care 4 Me . . . I’ll Remember You is the piece Dom made in the Corcoran’s Combat Paper Project workshop.  It is a memento mori to his friend Josh Wheeler who went to war but did not make his way through the trauma when he came back home.  Josh was killed in a car accident. He is acknowledged in the closing credits of Where Soldiers Come From, and also in Dom’s Care 4 Me . . . I’ll Remember You, an amazing image on Combat Paper that is now a part of the                         Combat Paper Project Exhibitions Collection.

Dominic is continuing to work as a practicing artist.  Since the Arts and the Military/AMH week he has created murals in Chicago and in Santa Barbara — the first for the National Veterans Art Museum and the second for the University of California at Santa Barbara.

We thank all our collaborators and sponsors who support the Arts and Military/AMH event, and whose mission is to help those service members and veterans dealing with both visible and invisible wounds of war.

Tara Leigh Tappert, JME Art Editor and Founder, The Arts and the Military.

Down But Not Out by Andrew Smith

This Infantry Soldier overcame PTSD through counseling and his faith.  Today, he is President of the Board of Directors for Operation First Response, a non-profit organization that financially assists Wounded Warriors and their families and is a small business owner of Yellow Dawg Striping of Southwest Virginia. Be inspired today!

I grew up in a great home with dedicated parents and two awesome brothers. My childhood was typical for a home with all boys. Sports, 4-wheelers and guns filled up our afternoons and life was never boring. Basketball was my passion and I played through high school and college. I loved the competitive nature of the game and enjoyed seeing all that could be accomplished when a team worked together. I joined the Army halfway through my sophomore year of college. I originally enlisted in the Reserve but, after many conversations with a former Ranger, I went Active Duty Infantry.

I was stationed at Ft. Drum, home of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. We deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in September of 2003. On our first combat mission, the vehicle I was driving was hit by an IED. I suffered shrapnel wounds to my left leg and a traumatic brain injury. (The TBI was not diagnosed until 2006).

After 2 surgeries and over 30 days in the hospital, I returned to my unit and began to continue with combat missions. On November 2nd 2003, a Chinook helicopter was shot down outside of Fallujah and we were the first ones to respond. When we arrived there were a large amount of wounded and a total of 16 KIA. This event is one that has dominated my days and nights since.

After 12 months in Iraq, we returned to the states and back to our “normal” lives. When it became obvious that due to my shrapnel wounds I would not be able to continue as an infantry soldier, I transferred to a different unit. This time was very hard because I was pulled away from my closest friends and leaders. I began to drink very heavily to try and forget about what I had went through and to numb me from what was ahead. I hated being stuck in the Army because I was now in a unit where I did not know anyone and had no real purpose. (I was going through the process of being discharged.)

After I had been home for 3 months, I married the girl of my dreams and could not have been blessed with a better wife and friend. The problem was that she was in the middle of a school year teaching in Georgia while I was awaiting my discharge in New York. So from December 2004-July 2005 I numbed my pain by drinking each and every night. Looking back on this time in my life, there are many things that I would do different, but the one obvious one is my drinking. Alcohol does nothing to help any problem you may have and in most cases it just makes things far worse. I made the decision to stop drinking the day I got out of the Army and I have not had a single drink since then.

After leaving the Army I still had many issues that I needed to deal with but sometimes I felt so overwhelmed by all of the symptoms that I was too worn out to even think about the problem. Anger, fear, depression, and paranoia dominated my days and the nights didn’t get much better. After talking with many different counselors I finally found one that really did make a difference in my life. She took the time to walk me through the different situations I was facing in my life and really opened my eyes to things that I needed to work on.

When I was 12 years old I made the decision to ask Christ to forgive me of my sins and I put my faith and trust in Him and Him alone. While I didn’t always act like a Christian, I knew that deep down He was still there for me and He had always been. As I became more involved in my church and with helping other people get through their own trials, I began to notice that my own issues were growing smaller by the day. As life got busy with kids and work I found that I didn’t quite have enough time to dwell on my past and live my life too. I DECIDED TO LIVE!!!

Since 2005 I have had the honor of being a basketball coach, a youth pastor, serving on the Board of Directors for a non-profit and speaking at different events around the country. I am still with the awesome girl I married in 2004 and we now have 2 kids and another one on the way. God has opened many doors for me to help wounded warriors and others deal with PTSD, TBI and many other injuries and I am honored each time I get to spend time with some of our Nation’s finest.

It would take many pages to list all of the amazing people that have helped me since I was wounded and I am sure that I would forget to list them all. To the ones that do read this, I thank you for everything you have done for me and I want you to know that you made a difference in my life and my family’s. To the Soldiers and Marines that may be reading this wonder how you will make it through the rest of your life; I encourage you to take it a day at a time. God has a plan for your life and while you may not see what it is right now, He can.

Be honest with those close to you in regards to what you are feeling and thinking and be willing to let others help you along the way. There is no shame in allowing others to be a blessing and an encouragement to you.

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller

About the author: Infantry soldier with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from 2002-2005. Wounded in Fallujah, Iraq in 2003 by shrapnel from an IED. Purple Heart Recipient, Youth Pastor 2006 – Present. President of the Board of Directors for Operation First Response, a non-profit organization that financially assists Wounded Warriors and their families. Small Business Owner-Yellow Dawg Striping of Southwest Virginia.