Commentary

April 27, 2012

Through my eyes: Surviving sexual assault

Airman Daniel B. Blackwell
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (AFNS) — “That night, my whole world turned upside down,” said Airman Samantha Smith, a sexual assault survivor in the Air Force.

On the night Smith was recalling, she became a victim of sexual assault and took her first of many steps down the road to recovery.

That night, Smith attended a party with people whom she believed to be her close, trusted friends. Her attacker knew her boyfriend and accompanied her to the party. Smith dismissed warnings from other close friends about her would-be attacker and his motives for spending time with her.

“I should have noticed the signs, but I was naïve,” Smith said.

At the party, Smith drank alcohol despite the fact she was underage. She became drunk and chose to leave with the male “friend” whom she assumed she could trust. After the party, he drove her back to his apartment where she spent the night.

“When I awoke, he was having intercourse with me,” she explained. “I knew what was happening, but I was trapped in my own body, paralyzed by fear. No one can understand that feeling unless they’ve been there. I couldn’t fight back, I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t move. Soon after, I blacked out.”

Smith woke up the next morning at 9 a.m., and the man had already left.

“I wish I could forget, but I can’t,” Smith said.

She first confided in her mother, then in her close friend as she felt those were the only two she could trust.

“My friend made me call the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator line,” she said. “I was so afraid I would get in trouble for underage drinking. I thought the SARC would record what you say and tell your commander, first sergeant and supervisors. I was wrong.

“They explained to me the difference between restricted and unrestricted reports,” Smith said. “I ended up doing a restricted report at first but later decided to do an unrestricted report.”

A restricted report must be kept confidential and cannot be investigated or prosecuted. An unrestricted report allows command notification and engagement as well as the option of investigation.

“After this, I signed a paper and went to Columbia, (S.C.) for a sexual assault nurse examination,” Smith explained.

This type of forensic medical exam may be performed at hospitals and certain healthcare facilities by a sexual assault nurse examiner, sexual assault forensic examiner or other medical professional. The investigation is complex and takes three to four hours on average. These medical and forensic exams are comprehensive and attend to the victim’s medical needs and any other special attention the victim may require.

“I went to work without telling anyone what happened. I was watching my back and not talking to anyone,” she said. “If I did talk, I would sound irate or cry for no reason. I wouldn’t go anywhere by myself, because I was scared. Everything was triggering my fear and anger.

“I kept blaming myself for what happened,” Smith said. “It’s my fault: my clothes were too skimpy; I drank too much; why couldn’t I fight back?”

“That same week I started counseling off base. I always thought counseling was for crazy people. I thought I could suck it up and handle it on my own; I was wrong, but my counselor really helped get me through.”

Because Smith filed an unrestricted report, she was required to speak with the Office of Special Investigations, which investigates major crimes in the Air Force.

OSI officials instructed Smith to write down all the details she could remember about her assault. After this, they questioned her multiple times about the events that took place during and prior to the assault. The initial process took more than five hours and Smith paid three more visits to OSI in the following weeks.

Air Force legal officials decided to file a complaint under Article 120: Rape and Carnal Knowledge. Shortly after pressing charges, Smith received her medical exam results back, which confirmed her fears.

“I had about three pages of evidence that this assault actually occurred,” Smith said. “Most people would find three pages of evidence a victory on their part, (but) I didn’t. I felt dirty and disgusting.

“The legal process was long and grueling,” she said. I felt like a lab rat, with no privacy or rights. Throughout this process, I found out that I was not the first girl he had raped. It made me so mad.”

“He assaulted (another) about a year prior to me, and got away with it. Knowing this gave me a little more motivation to bring him to court.”

The hearing was scheduled in August, and Smith was given the option not to testify. However, if she refused to testify, the case had a high probability of being thrown out.

“That day was so nerve wrecking for me. I had to tell my story again in front of more than 10 people, including my attacker,” she explained. “I could feel his eyes burning through me as I talked about what happened.”

One week following the initial hearing, Smith received news that they had enough evidence to forward the case to court-martial.

“I didn’t want to testify again,” she said. “When you’re on the stand, they rip your story to pieces. They try to make you seem like the worst Airman there is, like the scum of the earth. I debated whether or not I’d testify up to the last minute. A week before the court martial was to take place, the Area Defense Counsel representing my attacker met with me and explained they were opting to submit a package for a bad conduct discharge.

“I agreed with it. As long as I didn’t have to see him anymore, I was happy,” Smith said. “The ADC then sent the request up the chain of command where it was later approved. The day I was told he was being discharged, I cried tears of joy. I had a weight lifted off my shoulders. Justice had been served.

“I received a letter of reprimand for underage drinking, which was deserved on my part,” she said. “I was blessed not to have received anything worse. The LOR gave me more motivation to do better for me and the Air Force.

“To this day, I still have flashbacks, night terrors and memories,” Smith said. “It doesn’t get any easier. I’m still judged by this. I’m not the rape victim you see on ‘Law and Order;’ I’m an average Airman who’s been through hell and back. So before you judge someone because of how they act or dress, think about what they might have been through.

“But more importantly, if you’re a victim of rape, please come forward to the SARC,” she said. “The sooner the better.”

(Editor’s Note: This story is a personal, victim-submitted account of an actual sexual assault and its aftermath. The names and identities of the individuals involved have been omitted or altered to maintain confidentiality.)




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