It’s amazing what you can live with, and no one knows unless you tell them.
When you are maybe three years old your mother has a psychotic break and tries to pin your hands to the kitchen table with a knife in a game of chicken. Then she ties you to the foot of the pipe bed in her dark bedroom all day to keep you safe from her voices. You can hear her arguing with them, but you can’t hear THEM. Every time her footsteps approach the door it terrifies you and you fight to get your hands free but you can’t. You feel like a prisoner of her war. Your father finds you there one night when he comes home from work and you are scared because you peed your pants, but it’s okay because he isn’t angry. You don’t see your mother for a long time after that. When she returns she seems like someone else, like a robot. For the rest of your childhood she will mostly be this over-medicated zombie of neglect.
When you are four years old your father starts molesting you. You don’t like it. You don’t want it. But he talks about it as if it is something you do together, share together, want together. He tells you that if you ever tell anyone they will lock you up in a place like your mother went to, and they will never let you out. Over the years he tells you this a lot. He tells you you are crazy like your mother, that you imagine things. The older you get, the more you try to fight him off, the more he says this. He reads Detective magazines. The kind with graphic descriptions of women and young girls being raped and sexually tortured to death. He underlines the worst passages and makes you read them while he grins at you. Your body and your mind are his killing field.
Your father never keeps a job so you are always poor. He moves you around the country a lot. A different school every year. Sometimes more than one a year. You never learn how to build and develop stable relationships over time. The neighborhoods you live in are rough. Every time you move into a new one you have to let the biggest, baddest girl beat you up, because you are small and don’t know how to fight. It’s okay because as long as you have the guts to show up she ends up being your pal and protector, and you end up helping her with her homework. You feel like you are fighting in a war, but for what? You don’t know.
When you are sixteen, because you have found a way to make him leave you alone, your father tells you they are moving without you and you need to find some other place to live. Your mother is crying but she is helpless to do anything. You find a place. You survive. You beat the odds. You finish High School. You feel like you have won a war. You can go home. But you have no home to go to.
You join the military. Because you are smart and responsible they build you into a leader. They mentor you. They parent you. They sibling you. You develop confidence, self-respect, and belonging. You believe in them. You believe in yourself. They become your family. The one you never really had. You would do almost anything for them, for your country. You would die for them, for the whole country of them.
And then they rape you. Your body is someone’s war zone again. Suddenly you are a slut, a whore. You asked for it. It’s your fault. Be quiet. Shut up. Get over it. Shut up. Just get over it! But you can’t. Because everything has changed now. Everything.
Once again you are alone. But now you know it’s possible to NOT be alone. It’s possible to belong somewhere, to be part of something greater than yourself. Now the loss really hurts. You feel lonelier than you have ever felt.
And now you are broken.
You don’t know it’s called Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They haven’t even named it yet. All you know is you can’t sleep. Certain things drop you into a cold shaking sweat. Memories hit you like a baseball bat across the face. You can’t stand crowds, or crowded streets. You have to sit with your back to a wall. You constantly scan for danger. You do perimeter checks before you can lie down at night. And god help the person that sneaks up behind you or touches you without warning you first, if you don’t see them or know they’re there. Sometimes a smell, or sound, or sight throws you right back there and it’s like it’s really happening all over again. You are fighting a war inside yourself, and your spirit has become the killing field.
It’s an invisible war because no one can see a missing limb. And no one wants to hear about it. No one wants to know. They just want you to get over it. It’s invisible because it’s fought against women, and believe it or not against men, in the shadows. Very few perpetrators ever see any prison time or even bad conduct discharges. Often, instead, they are promoted and moved, while their victims are processed out of the service with less than honorable discharges–making them ineligible for veteran’s benefits, including mental health services. It’s invisible because it’s swept under the proverbial carpet.
So you are also fighting a war with the patriarchy that wants to keep things as they are. The way that lets predators rape women and men and get away with it, while their victims are at best ignored and at worst criminalized in the military justice system.
There is also war in the moments where fear, duty, shame, courage, and friendship vie with each other: fire fights that scare the hell out of you and you want to run for cover but you know if you do someone depending on you will probably die, and in the split seconds you have in which to decide who you can save and who you have to let die, and …
The thing is, there are all kinds of wars and they all end up being fought on the inside of people, don’t they?