BY: CAITLIN FELDMAN
PHOTOS: TESS FREEMAN
For female veterans who have experienced sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder turns everyday life into a nightmare
Ree McSween stood at the front window of her cold, dark house with a loaded weapon in her hand. Snow coated the ground—rare for a Eugene, Oregon winter. She was isolated, save for a large snowball in her driveway. It wasn’t there earlier, but suddenly there it was, taunting her.
McSween didn’t see an oversized snowball. In her mind, she saw the unknown person who put it there. A threat. A danger.
Standoffs were this snowball’s specialty. It sat silently, patiently contemplating her move. McSween’s weapon was loaded. The gun was a .45 caliber Colt 1911.
She turned off the lights in her house. The heat was off, too, but that was no matter; she could stand the cold if it meant catching the assailant.
For ninety minutes, McSween stood at the window.
The perpetrator never arrived.
“It finally dawned on me how crazy it was, waiting at the window with a loaded .45 in my hand,” McSween says. “The fear was real but the evidence didn’t show the threat.”
McSween is one of 7.7 million American adults suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Because women are the most common victims of domestic violence, rape, and abuse, they are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD in their lifetimes, according to the PTSD Alliance, an organization made up of professional advocacy groups that provide resources to those affected by the disorder.
Along with depression, anxiety, and insomnia, fear is among the most common symptoms of PTSD. Often occurring after traumas such as sexual assault, combat, or natural or industrial disasters, PTSD can be life-shattering, altering the way victims see the world and themselves.
McSween believes she’s been dealing with undiagnosed PTSD for most of her life. It began with her father, an alcoholic who she says abused her physically and sexually, then continued through a brutal beating she suffered at the hands of two siblings.
Yet it wasn’t until a she says a senior officer attempted to rape her that McSween’s symptoms came to the forefront. In the US Armed forces, the term for sexual abuse is Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and this event would transform her dormant PTSD symptoms into an active monster.
Today, her symptoms are triggered when someone stands behind her right shoulder–the direction from which her attacker approached.
“He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t agreeing to the rape. That’s where his ego was,” McSween says. “He bent me over a bunk and was trying to rape me, and I was able to fight him off by swinging my elbow around and knocking him off.”
McSween never reported the assault.
According to the Department of Defense’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, an estimated 19,000 cases of rape, sexual assault, or harassment occur each year. Only 2,617 of those estimated cases were reported in 2011.
Anonymous, mandatory culture surveys reveal these numbers. But not all participants trust the anonymity, says Jennifer Norris, an Air Force Veteran and victim advocate for the Military Rape Crisis Center in Maine. As a result, Norris believes that 19,000 is a low estimate.
“I think it’s more common than what people even know,” she says.
McSween didn’t report the assault because she’d been taught to remain silent her whole life. Instead she buried the event deep within herself—to tell the secret would mean certain death. It’s what she said her family threatened when they discovered she was a lesbian; it’s what she believed would happen to her military career if she told her superiors of the attack.
So it remained hidden.
“I knew I didn’t have a chance,” McsSween says. “Because in the military you can’t just report that to your authorities, it has to go through your chain of command. And since he was a senior person in my chain of command . . .” The hierarchy only reinforced her decision to remain silent.
Although she says sexual abuse was considered an ordinary occurrence in this environment, McSween refused to accept it as part of “military culture.” When she became a senior officer, other servicewomen told her of their experiences with MST. McSween passed the information on to other officers, but says she was soon instructed to stop. Nothing could be done, she was told. It wasn’t her job to help—it was her job to train.
According to McSween, that was when her superiors began to actively search for reasons to discharge her.
She said officers began harassing her about her weight. She was sent to the unit where “mess-ups” go, where she was routinely tested for drugs and questioned about her sexuality. Eventually, she checked herself into the psychiatric ward—an infamous career killer.
“There were times I was starting to get suicidal,” McSween says. “I was driving and I’d think, it would just take a minute to yank this wheel over and cross the line and get in front of this truck coming at me.”
By now McSween’s PTSD was in full effect, but she had no idea. She didn’t understand how she could be a human when she didn’t feel like one.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) states that in order for PTSD to be diagnosed, victims must show signs of stressors, including intrusive recollections—commonly known as flashbacks—as well as numbness or avoidance and heightened emotional arousal.
“You can be numbed out,” says Megan Wuest, a psychologist associate specializing in trauma therapy in Eugene, Oregon. “Your world starts to get smaller because of the event. You also have to have hyperarousal—difficulty falling asleep, irritable outbursts, being hyper vigilant.”
McSween later realized that she displayed all of these symptoms. At the end of her military career, she felt like she was going crazy. She was depressed and estranged from her family. She says the Coast Guard encouraged her to quit and she was eventually discharged.
The reason? Unsuitability.
“I wasn’t functioning well. I was barely surviving,” she says. “And I was feeling like I was imploding upon myself. I didn’t have any friends. That’s what isolation does to you—you just don’t have anybody to talk to.”
For the next fifteen years, PTSD took control of her life.
Around the same time, Krista Shultz was fresh out of the Army and fighting her own battle with undiagnosed PTSD. As a linguist during Desert Storm, she never encountered harassment while enrolled in her language program.
But when Shultz left her language program and was stationed overseas, the catcalls began. The problem, she says, it that they were allowed.
She complained about the harassment once, but says she was told to simply avoid that area of the base. Shultz says her superiors told her she was the problem, not the harassers.
Says victim advocate Jennifer Norris, “We cannot minimize sexual harassment. [Harassment] is insidious, subtle, long-term, and very degrading to a person’s psyche, self-esteem, and self worth if you can’t get away from it.”
As time moved on, Shultz could not escape. Her job was to fight the enemy, but she felt an entirely different enemy lived on her own base. Eventually, she felt that even going to the bathroom alone wasn’t safe, nor was showering.
At one point, a sergeant requested that Shultz join him and an all-male group of soldiers in the desert to simulate living under hostile conditions.
“He said in front of everyone, ‘We just brought you out here so we could rape you,’” Shultz says. “He said it. He said it and you know, there’s my PTSD right there,” she says. Many of the male soldiers around her laughed at the sergeant’s statement, but Shultz took it seriously.
She made it clear she would shoot anyone who came near her.
“You’ll have to go to sleep sometime,” she recalls her sergeant responding.
His joking tone was gone.
Not all of Shultz’s PTSD symptoms are from sexual trauma, however. Some stem from being the target of Scud Missile attacks. Wind chimes trigger her symptoms because they remind her of the alarm that signaled a gas attack. The smell of canvas reminds her of being surrounded by untrustworthy men in the desert. She sleeps best alone because she fears for her safety if someone else is in the room. Loud noises at night trigger her symptoms, as does being woken abruptly.
Shelley Corteville is also triggered by loud noises. She startles easily and has night terrors. She cannot stand it when people are behind her, either.
Corteville served in the Army from 1977 to 1981. She says she was raped five times during this period.
Four years ago, she attended a Soldier’s Heart retreat and shared her story for the first time. It was also the first time she’d felt safe since joining the military with parental consent at age seventeen. Like McSween and Shultz, Corteville knew something was wrong but could not pinpoint her apprehension.
Speaking with other veterans has given her allies in the battle against PTSD.
“I found out I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one,” Corteville says. “Even though our experiences might be a little different, they’re all so much the same.”
Today, she still struggles to form intimate relationships. She never had the chance to learn what a healthy sex life is like, and although she wants to improve her relationships, she doesn’t know where to start. For Corteville, her scars overshadow the act of sex itself. Her PTSD affects her trust not only of others, but of herself.
While none of these women believe their PTSD will ever fully go into remission, they still continue their attempts to heal.
For McSween, the healing process involved creating Cycling for Veterans, a group that helps former military personnel and their families be active in safe social situations. In addition to forming the cycling group, she also began telling her story.
All three PTSD survivors have been open to sharing their stories in order to help others with similar experiences. Through sharing what happened to them, they hope to change the culture surrounding MST.
“Walking through these fears shows me that the fears are just paper tigers. They don’t have anything to do with reality,” McSween says. “My job is to talk about it. My job is to get it out of me.”
It’s been six years since McSween held a snowball at gunpoint and decided it was time to get help. She no longer waits for paper tigers to appear, ready to attack her like a flesh-and-blood beast.
But when they do, she defeats them one by one.