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 www.change.org/members/article120 <http://www.change.org/members/article120 ).
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.