When I see Vanessa Guillen, I see a reflection of myself and every woman who serves | Aryanna Hunter

I wore the same rank on my chest. I see the same dark eyes and broad smile of a younger version of myself in the photos displayed in the news and through my timeline.

Aryanna Hunter (Capital-Star file photo)

Vanessa Guillen, a specialist in the United States Army went missing on April 22, 2020. Before her disappearance, she reported to her family that she was being sexually harassed by someone in her unit and was planning to report it to her chain of command.

 Her remains were found last week, and the accused perpetrator died by suicide when approached by authorities.

 These events come after decades of reports of sexual assault in the military with numbers that continue to rise.

 In 2003, when deployed to Iraq, another soldier in my unit who outranked me, raped me. He told me it’s what I wanted, and that no one would believe me if I told.

 We were in the middle of the desert on the brink of an invasion and I was just a private first class — a nobody.

I said nothing. I said nothing about it and didn’t disclose to anyone for almost 17 years.

At the time I was worried that no one would believe me, I was scared that they’d blame me for putting myself in that position, or worse call me a liar, retaliate, take my rank, and send me home.

 For Vanessa, deciding to report what happened cost her her life.

This shakes me. I’ve lost sleep about what’s happened to her. If I had been brave like her and reported it…there is a real possibility I wouldn’t have made it home at all.

This is the worst version of friendly fire: When the men in your unit who are supposed to be there to watch your back are the ones that you are actually fearful of. 

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These experiences that women and some men in the military experience are more common than most Americans realize. One in four women and 1 in 100 men have experienced military sexual trauma (MST). 

In the most recent report released by the Pentagon about 20,500 service members report experience sexual assault and those numbers are increasing. Of the 6,236 reports in 2019 about 90 percent never made it to court martial.

As a part of my healing, I feel it’s necessary to reduce the stigma and shame associated with military sexual trauma so other women who have experienced it get the help they need.

It’s why I’ve launched the #MeTooMST campaign. There is power and healing in telling your story. #MeTooMST gives survivors the digital space to share their story both in writing, recording, art, music, or any other way they wish – and can even do so anonymously.  We are also launching a podcast this Fall co-hosted by both an MST counselor and a Navy veteran survivor.

There are resources out there for those who have experienced military sexual trauma. The VA has resources and MST counselors but many service members still have shame around this being on their military record.

The vet centers are community-based counseling centers that provide a wide range of social and psychological services, including professional readjustment counseling for those who have experienced MST.  And even though they are a part of the VA the records are kept separate.  

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I go to the White Oak Vet Center near my home, and the therapy I receive there has changed my life. It has given me newfound strength and confidence, kind of like that Aryanna who at 18 raised her right hand two months after 9/11, before one man decided to take that away.

I’m fearful that those who have experienced MST will see what happened to Vanessa and decide not to report. Instead, what I hope happens is that we finally see people held accountable in all chains of command that continue to perpetuate sexual assault by sweeping it under the rug.

Women who have served in the military repeatedly do the impossible. They’ve performed jobs that no one believed they could, in gear designed for men, and the majority will look you in the eye and tell you that they did it far better than their male counterparts.

Vanessa isn’t here to share her story. Her perpetrator made that decision for her. Veteran survivors from all over the country are coming together to demand justice for her. We’re demanding that not one more person is victimized while serving their country.

In this battle I stand with them on the frontline.

And most importantly, I believe them.

Opinion contributor Aryanna Hunter, of Pittsburgh, is an Iraq War veteran, author, advocate, and founder of What a Veteran Looks Like and #MeTooMST. Her work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.