I was at a dinner party with a bunch of friends not long ago when the subject of rape in the military came up.
“It doesn’t happen,” said one guest, a National Guardsman, who was sitting next to me. I’d met this gentleman for the first time that night, and he knew I’d been in the Navy but didn’t know the reason why I was in a wheelchair.
His words and dismissive tone made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention, like Jack’s do when he senses danger. I was about to rattle off a list of horrifying statistics and stories for this guy when I saw my hostess’s worried face. So I quietly replied, “You and I, sir, should not have this conversation.”
It was shocking to me that after so many tragic stories and information had surfaced in the news in recent years about sexual abuse in the military, there were still people—even those inside the military—who denied that it happens or refused to see it. Or they attempted to downplay or make excuses somehow.
“Marines don’t rape one of our own,” one member of the Corps said to me a few years ago. “Sure, we’ll rape a whore in another country. But not here, and not one of our people.” As if being on a foreign land with a stranger makes it okay?
“Rape is not an occupational hazard,” I told this Marine. Yet no matter how hard I tried to convince him of how inhumane and irrational his thinking was, he couldn’t get it through his thick skull that it’s never okay to rape: not if the victim is a prostitute or dressed “sexy,” not if you or she are drunk at a party, and not if you are in the military where they make up their own rules . . . never.
The mind-set of both of these men—the ignorance, insensitivity, and fear or inability to see the truth—is why the cycle of violence is still in motion.
I’ve talked to hundreds of women in the military about this, and to meet an enlisted woman who has not been sexually assaulted in some way is a rarity.
At the end of 2013, a Pentagon summary showed that reports of sexual assault in the military had increased sharply in the previous year: 3,553 sexual complaints were reported to the Department of Defense from October 2012 through June 2013—a nearly 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier—and the numbers continued to rise after that.
Some thought these statistics meant that incidents of rape had suddenly increased, but I think the stats jumped because more women (and men) are coming forward, and this is good news. The rates of sexual assault were always high, but the military kept us silent; it’s impossible for us to ever know the number of rapes in the past that went unreported. But I feel a new awareness brought on by the media, like the 2012 documentary The Invisible War, has made an impact. That film helped victims, myself included, feel more comfortable with speaking out. And the only way change is going to happen is if we all talk about it; numbers make change happen.
One change that needs to happen is for the United States Congress to take the power of justice out of the military ranks. We can’t expect an entity like the military—where the crimes of war are a normal part of everyday life—to judge a crime like rape (and in my case, attempted murder as well) in a fair way. The nature of the job doesn’t allow for a clear and impartial assessment of the crime or the punishment.
This is an issue for every person to worry about, not just those in the service. The military is creating rapists who not only harm men and women during their tour of duty, but also after they leave and enter the civilian world. The young man who put me in a wheelchair continued a life of crime until the day he died.
Before these legal changes can come about, however, the victims must continue to speak out and band together. I hope that by my telling my story, more women and men will share their own experiences with someone they trust. It will help them shed the burden of shame, blame, and victimization, and that is the first step for the healing process to begin for everyone involved.
I’ve done an immeasurable amount of healing—spiritually, mentally, and physically—over the years, and I will continue. The year 2015 marked 25 years since that night on the cliff when my life changed forever. Today, I’m grateful that I’m able to walk. I’m grateful that I can sit by an ocean and not freak out. I’m grateful that I can sit in a café next to a group of young men and not panic.
Only once since my trip to Ireland over a dozen years ago did I experience a bout of PTSD as severe as I did then.
Two years ago, I planned to temporarily move from Grand Junction to San Diego for six months to do more intensive gait training with a specialist. It didn’t occur to me that going back to the city where I was hurt would have a negative effect on me, but one day after I arrived, the symptoms began.
First, I saw the sign for Sunset Cliffs. Then, as I set up my apartment two miles from Mission Beach—the area Bruce drove to get alcohol that night—I recognized that same cold, damp air from 25 years ago. I wasn’t exactly sure what in the end triggered it, but my anxiety grew until I was bursting into tears several times a day.
I called up my Grand Junction neighbors Bob Noble and Carolyn White, who have become like parents to me (if my addition is correct, that makes eight moms and dads now!). “I need to come home!” I cried. “I can’t be here!”
Within a day or two, they arrived to pack me up and take me and Jack back to Grand Junction, where we belonged. Home. Healing is an ongoing process, and after all the moving around I’ve done in my life, I just want to be home.
Bob and Carolyn have been a godsend to me during the last four years we’ve been neighbors. They dogsit Jack when I travel and swoop in when I have an emergency, like the time I broke my foot. They took me for x-rays and made sure I was eating and could get to the toilet and in the shower since I was back to square one again. Thank God for angels on this earth.
I dream big, as you know by now, and two months ago, one of my long-held dreams came true.
Ever since I stood up and skied at the Winter Sports Clinic, I hoped one day to be an instructor like the Ponderosa Boys and Bobby Palm. In 2012, after almost 20 years attending the Clinic, I decided this would be my last year as a participant. The Clinic and the people there had given me so much, but I knew it was time for a change. I wanted to give back to the new veterans coming in every year—so many had the frightened, baby faces that I did when I first got there. To symbolize my transition that year, I sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at opening ceremonies. I rehearsed for months with a voice teacher, and when the day arrived, I had the option of sitting but chose to stand up. I held on to two chairs and stood at attention, singing into the microphone as several military honor guards posted the flags in the auditorium. I felt proud of our country and the people who risked their lives to fight for it.
Bobby Palm had been going to bat for me for years to convince organizers to let me volunteer as an instructor. “She’s been teaching the instructors and inventing her own equipment for years!” he’d tell them. After a woman was put in charge, the door opened for me. In early 2015, I got the call: I’d been accepted to be an instructor for the following year!
I went to the Clinic in March to observe the other instructors, and found I already had a protégé. It never occurred to me that I could be a role model for anyone, but that year one person showed me that I could be, and already was.
“Jersey Jeanne” is a para with multiple sclerosis, and she’d seen me use the Slider a few years earlier. In 2014, she said to herself, “Dana’s a quad—if she can do it, so can I!” Which she did, and beautifully. This year, she took her progress even higher and went from the Slider to using SideStix (forearm crutches), which is what I use today. And then my protégé one-upped me and used regular ski poles!
After her triumphant lap on the Nordic trail, she handed me a thank-you card that said:
Dana, you are my mentor and inspiration. You are my rockin’ warrior goddess!
I had to laugh because I never thought of myself as an “inspiration” to anyone . . . and now that she’d one-upped me, I had serious work to do!
“Damn, Jersey Jeanne!” I told her. “Now I’ve got to learn to use regular poles because you raised the bar!”
It’s great to be around others who dream big, too, and want to keep moving onward and upward. And I love the idea that something I did convinced someone else that their possibilities are limitless. Two weeks ago, I went flying 2,000 feet high as a passenger in an ultra-light plane. I felt so free soaring through the sky and defying gravity, with nothing around or under me but air. I thought,
This is what a bird must feel like . . . as if the sky’s the limit.
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
Nobody knows exactly how to heal an injury like mine; in fact, most in the medical profession think it’s impossible. It doesn’t happen, doctors say. And yet, it did. So I’ve become a pioneer in spinal cord injury recovery, and I hope to bring other believers with me.
I know attitude has a lot to do with healing and that you have to believe your body can actually heal for it to do so. You also have to give your body the tools it needs, be it stem cells, prosthetics, exercise, nutrition, or meditation. There’s no quick fix; it’s ongoing work for a lifetime. But I won’t allow the world to set limits on what I can do, and I don’t think you should, either—whether you have a physical handicap or an illness, or even if you’re emotionally crippled, because there are plenty of people out there who have that handicap as well.
I hold in mind what Confucius once said: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
If my speaking out prevents even one rape, then all of my struggles will have been worth it. In the meantime, I continue to work on leaving the chair behind. But I also enjoy every moment of life in front of me and what I’m able to do in the moment. Even if I don’t leave this chair completely, I’ve reached my goal of walking.
I can walk half a mile by myself with crutches. With a little help, I walked up the Colosseum and Spanish Steps in Rome. I walked up to Athena’s temple in Greece. I walked around the Statue of Liberty in New York City and held my crutch up high, like her torch, in liberation and victory.
It’s like what I told my father on the phone that day right after I joined up. I was excited about my present and my future, and the Navy slogan said it all:
I am tomorrow. I am the better day.
Dana Liesegang is an expert in spinal cord injury recovery, and a 2014 recipient of the Hero of Forgiveness Award given by the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance. When she’s not traveling the world as a motivational speaker, she’s taking university classes and hanging out with friends and the love of her life, Jack (a yellow Lab), in a quaint little town in Colorado. She enjoys every minute of the life she has created in the now. Please visit: www.danaliesegangbook.com
Natasha Stoynoff is a New York Times best-selling author. She lives in New York City, where she writes books and screenplays, inter- views the occasional celebrity, and eats too much chocolate.