About Military Sexual Trauma
While any sexual assault is terrible, rape in the military is different than rape in the civilian world, said Nicole Moret, chief of behavioral health services for the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at Fort Belvoir (Virginia) Community Hospital, a joint medical center. (She has not treated Harrison.) That's because military sexual trauma, or MST, usually involves battle buddies, shipmates - people you're supposed to trust with your life.
"I've had situations where it's a deployed environment, so you're constantly in danger day to day, and the person standing next to you who is supposed to protect you and have your back is the one hurting you," Moret explained. "It's a very vulnerable position. ... It can produce very negative interactions with the unit." Like Harrison, the victim may feel traumatized over and over again.
According to Moret, both survivors of MST and survivors of combat trauma are far more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they don't talk soon after the trauma occurs. "If you're having an acute stress reaction, we understand this. This is normal. ... It's a survival mechanism. If we can educate and normalize and just get them talking, the brain is much more likely not to go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder."
The day after Harrison's rape, she reported back to her ship for duty, the same ship where her attacker was assigned. She had a long break soon after, a combination of the response to the 2011 Japanese earthquake and scheduled home leave, but her rapist was always with her. Then, when she returned, he would go out of his way to intimidate her. "He would just look at me ... like, 'I know I have power over you.'"
Harrison wanted off the ship. She even applied to cross rate. But in the meantime, she finally decided that enough was enough. She stopped avoiding her attacker. She started to glare back at him when they passed in the passageways. "I wouldn't let him bully me," she said, explaining that she was gathering the courage to file charges.
He knew, she said. "He had this idea that 'Oh my God. She's not afraid of me anymore. ... I [expletive] up and I'm about to pay.'" He failed his physical readiness test on purpose, his second in a row, so he was quickly flown to the States and discharged from the Navy.
He fell through the cracks, but Harrison told herself she was moving on. "I was living in denial. I was the queen of it," she remembered. She couldn't wait to get to her new command, but in the meantime, she threw herself into work. The ship was underway and after a long day on the job, she would fall into her rack, too exhausted to think about what had happened.
I went from work, work, work, work, and then when I got to my new job field, it was almost like having a nine-to-five job in the civilian world," Harrison said. "I had a lot more time to think about it. That's when the nightmares started. My attitude went down the drain. It was hard for me. Here I am in my new job field at a new command, and it didn't really go well."
After the rape, she became more and more withdrawn and depressed. Her nightmares got worse. She could feel herself going down a "rabbit hole." Maybe, she started to think, she would be better off dead.
A victim's advocate at the command could see Harrison was foundering. She tried to help, getting Harrison into counseling and a support group. Harrison even kept up therapy during her next deployment, going to group sessions on her new ship. She told a doctor she was having trouble sleeping and he gave her sleeping medication. But work interfered with therapy, and it wasn't enough anyway.
"It just got to be too much," she said. "It was just too hard. ... I couldn't take the nightmares and being on edge and my anxiety and panic attacks. I couldn't handle it anymore."
Behavioral health providers try to teach patients to identify red flags like these, said Moret. "These are the indications that my PTSD and my depression is worsening and I need to come in more often for therapy. Or these are red flags that I know I need to call my battle buddy and talk about this. These are red flags that tell me that I need to tell somebody how I'm feeling so that I can get through this."
One of the biggest warning signs is what Moret called a "lack of future orientation." In other words, someone doesn't talk about next week or next month or any time into the future.
"There are two things in life that you cannot see that are essential to life," she continued. "One is air and the other is hope. If you have somebody who has even the tiniest little glimmer of hope ... that can keep them alive. If they have one person that they trust, that they can depend on - that's usually somebody who, when they reach out to that person, if they're having suicidal thoughts, they're much less likely to go complete the suicide."
Trying to Die
July 4 weekend, when most of America was celebrating with cookouts and fireworks, Harrison decided enough was enough. She wanted peace. She wanted the pain to end. So she got drunk and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.
"This part, I have no recollection of," she said. "I don't know if my brain has completely blocked it out. ... I got a phone call from a friend, and he knew something was wrong. He and another friend came to my apartment and found me pretty much half dead."
Harrison woke up in a military hospital, strapped to a gurney with a charcoal tube up her nose. She was shocked and embarrassed, dismayed to be alive and furious with the friends who had saved her. She wanted to go home, she told the doctor. He couldn't do that, he said, explaining she had been admitted on a 72-hour psychiatric hold.