By Ms. Tiffany D Wood (Leonard Wood)August 9, 2019
Two survivors of sexual assault shared their stories of strength and resilience after experiencing trauma while serving in the military during Fort Leonard Wood's annual SHARP Summit, July 31.
About 300 leaders filled Lincoln Hall Auditorium to hear Heath Phillips and Maj. Hali Picciano recount how their perpetrators sexually assaulted them, how their allegations were handled and how they are continuing on their path of recovery after years of pain associated with their trauma.
Phillips and Picciano's stories started off similarly -- both grew up in military families and both followed in their parents' footsteps and joined the military.
Phillips joined the Navy five days after his seventeenth birthday and had plans of making it a career.
"I was planning on spending my life in the military," Phillips said. "It was my whole ambition since I was a child."
His dream of serving in the Navy became a living nightmare when he arrived to his first duty assignment. In a video shown to the audience, Phillips described how a trip to New York City with a group of Sailors ended with him being sexually assaulted.
After reporting the incident, his life "turned to hell," and the assaults, to include rape, became "more aggressive," he said.
To avoid the assaults, he tried committing suicide and went absent without leave only to be arrested and transferred back to his assignment. Desperate to escape, Phillips, who was just turning 18, agreed to an other-than-honorable discharge.
"I was at the mental state where you could give me a death certificate for me to sign, and I would have signed it," he said. "I don't know anybody in their right state of mind who wouldn't have done the same thing if they were in my shoes."
For 20 years, Phillips said he lived a "really bad life." He had a life-changing experience in 2009 after a night of heavy drinking. Instead of living "in shame," he wanted to spend "every waking moment" advocating and speaking up for victims of sexual assault.
Today, he shares his story with many groups to include the Special Victims Unit Investigations Course at the U.S. Army Military Police School. And although Phillips' dream of serving in the military was cut short, the Navy overturned his other-than-honorable discharge last year and granted him an honorable discharge.
Picciano joined the Army in 2001 and excelled during the first few years.
Her list of accomplishments were many and included her earning a bachelor's degree, becoming a "hawk eye" at the range, increasing her physical training score by 50 points and being promoted to sergeant.
"In the first few years of my time in the military, I did a lot," she said. "I was pretty high speed." She also described herself as being "goofy" and spontaneous.
That quickly changed when she was assigned to a unit in Germany and started dating an abusive Soldier. Her abuse escalated slowly over time, starting out as emotional that transitioned to psychological and physical, and eventually sexual. She became isolated, anxious and "badly depressed."
"People find it really hard to believe that you could be raped by someone you are dating," Picciano said.
She explained that in almost every abusive relationship, there is a cycle and "every single one of those cycles happens in every abusive case." It was no different for her.
"He would be abusive, I'd report him, he'd get in trouble and then I'd get it worse," she said. "I'd report it again, he'd get in trouble again, and then I would get it even worse than the time before."
At some point, she had to stop fighting, she said, which didn't mean she was "willingly with him," it only meant that it was the only way she was "truly able to survive."
Throughout the years, Picciano said she was asked why she didn't do more to stop the abuse. To answer that question, Picciano turned to numbers.
Ten is the number of times she filed a police report against her abuser.
Six is the number of times her abuser sat through a command-review committee. Five is how many times her abuser violated a no-contact order.
Three is how many times she and her children had to live in protective custody.
Two is how many courts martial she had to testify at, and of those, there were a combined total of 11 guilty verdicts, three of them were rape, she said.
"That gets me to my favorite number, which is 25," she said, the number of years her abuser will be in prison.
But her "favorite, favorite number is the number one," she said. "I'm standing before you today as one survivor."
Phillips and Picciano said they shared their stories to help others. They urged those in attendance to look for warning signs from victims, such as changes in behaviors or becoming isolated and withdrawn.
Both agreed the emphasis on sexual assault has changed in the military since they were assaulted and encouraged those who may need help to use the Army's SHARP Program.
"Back in the day, (the military) wanted to make sure everyone got a second chance and (they) didn't ruin someone's career … and that's just not the case today," Picciano said. "Today, we benefit from the ability to strive for zero tolerance. Fortunately, I have been able to share my story … and I can tell you the SHARP Program works."