ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- Leaders from Rock Island Arsenal and the surrounding Quad Cities signed a document proclaiming their continued commitment to ending sexual violence, here, April 1.
The event honored Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
"We are here today to renew our commitment to prevent sexual assault, to maintain a climate where survivors are treated with respect and receive the care they need -- where witnesses have the courage to intervene and where perpetrators are punished at the highest levels," said Michael Hutchison, deputy to the commander, U.S. Army Sustainment Command.
The guest speaker was Sandee Bills, community educator, Safe Path Survivor Resources in Moline, Illinois. Bills spent 22 years as a teacher and now spends her days educating children about body safety.
"Children need to know about their bodies and about being safe at a very, very young age," she said.
As the mother of a daughter who was raped when she was 16 years old, Bills focused her presentation on sexual violence and her family's experiences. She said she hoped the audience would be able to learn from her story.
"Each time I talk about it, it brings back memories and it's kind of hard, but it's also a way for me to heal too," she said. "I'm just trying to give people hope and trying to get people not to be silent."
Bills said over 15 years ago her daughter met a man while at lunch with a friend. She said her daughter liked the man, and they decided to meet again. During that second meeting, "he put a knife to her throat, raped her and told her he would kill her if she ever talked."
Bills' daughter did not speak of the incident for nearly six months following the rape and eventually only did so because she thought the man was stalking her. Bills said she was shocked.
"I can still remember. It was a Sunday night, and I was watching Columbo on TV," she said. "It was not something I ever expected."
She said she initially felt guilty her daughter hadn't confided in her sooner, but she now knows it's typical behavior for most victims of rape to remain silent.
"I felt tremendous guilt," she said. "But knowing what I know now, I know that what she did was not unusual. Most survivors do not tell. That was something I had to learn to accept."
The family consulted a sexual assault adviser for guidance about what to do next. She said the adviser made it clear her daughter needed to make the decision whether or not to report the rape to police.
Her daughter decided to report the crime, even though they were sure nothing would come of it due to a lack of evidence. While at the police station, they learned some startling news -- the police knew the attacker.
"He had only been out of prison for a few months before he had raped my daughter," Bills said, adding that he had been in prison for rape.
And, despite the lack of concrete evidence, the prosecutor decided to pursue the case.
While waiting for the trial to start, Bills said she had to confront a lot of personal struggles.
"I had to stop being around people who were happy," she said.
After realizing that her emotional turmoil was affecting her personal relationships, she decided to see a counselor.
"It was one of the best things I ever did," she said.
Bills also discussed other ways the episode affected her family, including her daughter's flashbacks and her son's concerns about his twin sister.
At trial, the man was found guilty. Bills said it was the man's own statements while being cross-examined on the stand that convinced the jury he had committed the crime.
He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
"We had a very, very positive outcome. She was doing much better… our family was doing much better. And, of course, having the judicial system work was very positive for helping her move forward," she said.
Bills said she thinks her family's story is one of hope. She said her whole family was able to move on and do positive things with their lives.
She also talked about the importance of disregarding self-blame and encouraged victims to speak about their experiences.
"It's just my personal opinion, but I think everyone who is sexually assaulted will always be a victim of sexual assault if that person blames themselves. If someone can say, 'I was raped, it was terrible and it was not my fault,' I believe that person is a survivor of sexual assault."
Katherin Kean, a sexual assault nurse coordinator at Genesis Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, was one among several who received awards for their service in the community combating sexual violence.
"I thought it was really helpful to have a parent of a survivor tell the story," she said. "It's happening in our communities, and it is something we need to fix in our culture."
Community leaders and representatives at the event included: Brig. Gen. Stephen Farmen, commanding general, Joint Munitions Command and deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Sustainment Command; Col. Elmer Speights Jr., commander, U.S. Army Garrison-Rock Island; Col. Don Wols, commander, Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center; Command Sgt. Maj. Walton Jones, JMC; Command Sgt. Maj. Myris Callwood, USAG-RI; Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Jones, JMTC; Kathryn Szymanski, chief, General Counsel, ASC; D. Scott Welker, deputy commander, JMC; Melanie Johnson, executive director, Army Contracting Command-Rock Island; John Thodos, mayor of East Moline; Dennis Pauley, mayor of Rock Island; Scott Raes, mayor of Moline; Tom Conrad, mayor of Silvis; Alderman Jerry Sechser representing Robert Gallagher, mayor of Bettendorf; Alderman Rita Rawson representing Frank Klipsch, mayor of Davenport; Deborah Haffner and Rob Winchester representing Senator Mark Kirk, Illinois; Andrew Spyrow representing Senator Joni Ernst, Iowa; Jared Mullendorf representing Congressman Dave Loebsack, Iowa; and Barbara Sennet representing Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, Illinois.