By Mark Iacampo, United States Army Garrison Bavaria, HohenfelsMay 2, 2014
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria hosted 'Take Back the Night,' a rally and walk highlighting the problem of sexual assault in our society.
Part of the Army's message about stopping sexual assault focuses on having the courage to intervene, to stand up for one's fellow Soldiers. The evening's guest speaker embodies this ideal as she candidly shared her own story in an effort to bring awareness to a topic many would rather ignore. Though she courageously stood before her fellow Soldiers and peers April 29, she will not be identified here and will be referenced as 'Sgt. Smith.'
Her story serves as a triumph of the human spirit, as well as a warning about the very real dangers of sexual assault in the military.
Smith had just started a new assignment at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Statistics state that sexual assault usually happens within 90 days of arriving at a new unit. Smith was the only female in her squad and felt alone and rejected as she was left out of 'Squad Meetings' which generally consisted of booze and ballgames.
After two months, Smith's squad leader finally invited her to one of the meetings. Arriving at his home, she was a bit nervous that no one else was there, but her squad leader told her the others had gone on a beer run and would be returning soon.
"I did see a few red flags," Smith said. "But as a private, it had been instilled in me to trust my leaders, and so I did, despite my discomfort with the situation."
Once inside, Smith's squad leader began feeding her shots. After the third shot, she blacked out, coming to the next morning, half-clothed in his bed, her squad leader lying naked beside her.
"He showed me inappropriate pictures that he had taken of me the night prior," she said. "He told me that 'we had to keep it our little secret.' He got up and ready for CQ as if nothing was wrong."
After he departed, Smith remained in bed, physically unable to rise. When she finally left, still in shock, she went straight home instead of to the Military Police or the hospital.
"I took a shower. I scrubbed my body so hard that I made myself bleed," said Smith. "I kept telling myself that because I didn't remember what had happened, it simply didn't."
Smith's reaction is a normal response to sexual assault, and days later when approached by another female Soldier, Smith denied having had sex with her squad leader.
Two weeks later, her Platoon Sergeant pulled her aside and said he'd heard rumors and asked for her story. Smith broke down in tears and was taken immediately to her Commander.
"The following months consisted of talking to CID (Criminal Investigation Department,) paralegals, TDS (Trial Defense Service,) and preparing for the court martial," said Smith. "During the trial, more details about that night continued to come out, such as he had called a number of males to come over and have sex with me. Luckily, no one else showed up, but no one stepped forward to stop him or report him."
Smith felt distanced from her peers within the unit as she was ostracized by her fellow Soldiers. Six weeks after the incident, she learned she was pregnant.
Smith's attacker was found guilty and sentenced to six months confinement, six months forfeiture of pay, reduction of rank, and a dishonorable discharge. CID had been trying to build a case against him for other offenses, but no one had come forward until after Smith. Two years after his sentencing, her attacker was charged for sexual assault on two minors and is currently serving two life sentences for these crimes.
"I did not seek counseling until almost four years after the event," Smith said. "I have been in and out of counseling since then. Almost seven years later, I am still dealing with residual issues, physical and emotional. If it was not for my family and friends that have continued to stand by me and support me, I do not know how I would have made it this far."
Smith said having her daughter was like a coping mechanism from her, and she takes comfort that something beautiful came out of a horrific event.
"(I) hope that this has opened your eyes as to what can happen, what has happened to me and to others," Smith said. "If you take anything away from today, please have the courage to intervene if you see something going awry. Pay attention to the SHARP presentations, trainings and events. Be respectful, you never know who is in the room with you while you complain or joke about it. Remember that when you see and hear about SHARP or sexual assault, it is not just happening to strangers.
"There may be people who have survived this, right next to you, right in your community, and they need our support," she said.
Overall, more than 600 people attended Take Back the Night events on Tower Barracks and Rose Barracks. And throughout April, more than 850 Soldiers, family members and civilians signed a pledge to take a stand against sexual assault.
"The number one priority of Army leadership is the prevention of sexual assault," said COL Jim Saenz, commander of USAG Bavaria, during the rally held on Tower Barracks. "It will take every member of the Army family to end this ugly problem. If you see any kind of sexual assault or harassment occurring, step in and stop it -- immediately. One person truly can make a difference."