Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
SIERRA VISTA — For Phyllis Romero, there is a before and an after, a line of demarcation that nearly 45 years later is still sharp and clear.
It is the night, when as a young WAC (one of the last), she was raped.
“After you go through something like that, your whole psyche shifts into a different dimension,” she said.
Romero is a survivor of military sexual trauma.
After a lifetime of counseling, of self-doubt, of fear, of anger, of questioning her own judgement, she has found a way to turn that terrible night into something valuable. As a chapter service officer for the Disabled American Veterans Fry Chapter 14 in Sierra Vista, Romero is uniquely qualified to help any veteran, male or female, who has experienced MST. She is very clear that men can also be victims of MST, saying that 10% to 15% of those who report a military sexual assault are men.
Because of her experience, Romero can help with the paperwork required to make a disability claim through the Veteran Affairs system and advise anyone on how to access the free services the VA offers, especially counseling. Because of her own experiences, she does it with compassion and understanding.
One soldier’s story
Romero’s story begins in 1976, the way a lot of veterans’ stories begin. As a high school graduate, she joined the U.S. Army, in large part to serve her country, but with the idea that this could become a career. Her entry into the larger world of the military opened a new world to her.
“I went from this very small town in rural upstate New York where everybody looks like me,” said Romero, who is petite, fair and blond. “We all thought alike; we all spoke alike; and we didn’t have a lot of diversity, so going in the Army was eye-opening.”
Because she could type well, Romero was assigned to work with the command sergeant major at Fort Gordon, Georgia. She had a nice social life there, where she was a member of the bowling team. After the games, the group would often continue the evening at someone’s house. Although some might have had alcohol, Romero did not. At 19 years old, she was not a drinker.
“There was a bunch of us,” she said, “and we went to a friend’s house, and he was the one giving me a ride that evening. That was not uncommon. We were at his house, and he just didn’t let me leave. Everybody else was getting ready to leave, and I’m standing up to walk out the door with everybody else and I’m thinking that he’s going to be taking me home, and he locks the door.”
She thought it was odd but was not afraid. After all, they had been friends (and only friends), and were having a conversation on the way to his house. Romero thought he wanted to continue talking.
“I’m sitting on his couch, and he sits next to me and he acts like he wants to kiss me,” she said. “I told him, no, I wasn’t looking at him in that way.”
Romero describes what she went through in detail despite the years that have passed since the attack.
“Then he reached into the cushions of the couch, and he pulls out a (wire) clothes hanger that was already straightened out,” Romero said, “and he wraps it around my neck and he starts tightening this clothes hanger. I kept protesting, of course. He was telling me what to do; he hadn’t actually done a sexual assault at that time; it was more like a physical assault. I was maybe 110 pounds. I’m five-foot, almost one-inch. I was just not a very big woman, and I’m brand new into the world, and I still believe the best of people.”
It gets worse.
“He was a bigger guy,” she said. “I knew that, physically, I just wasn’t going to be a match for him. At some point he was telling me to take off my pants, and I’m saying I’m not going to take off my clothes. He pulls me up by my pants, and he hoists me into the air so I’m looking at him straight in the face and, oh, my God, his eyes! I have never seen eyes like this before in my life, and never have I seen them again. It wasn’t just hatred. It was almost like, ‘I’m going to hurt you; you’re going to do what I want you to do.’ ”
At some point he put Romero down. She tried to talk her way out of what she knew was coming, telling him he doesn’t need to do this, she was on her period, she needed to use the bathroom. It didn’t work.
“There was no trying to rationalize anything,” she said. “There was no trying to talk about anything because that is not where he was at. He was in full-blown assault mode. He takes me toward his bedroom, and at that point I knew what he was going to do, and at that point I knew I wasn’t strong enough to thwart this attack. At that point, I knew that I was going to report this, because besides being scared to death, I’m pissed.”
The attack lasted 2½ hours. Then he drove her home. Romero could not understand it.
“I was just a nice young woman from upstate New York that just loved everybody,” Romero said.
The next morning, a very scared Romero reported the rape to the civil police because the attack happened off base. That began an entire other horrifying journey, in which her boss, her friends and her roommate turned on her.
“My cadre, they decided that I shouldn’t have gone to the police,” Romero said. “They took his side. He was an E-5; I was an E-2. They put all their positive energy toward him. They do that for a number of reasons. My opinion: Number one, men really aren’t sure how to treat a woman who has been physically and sexually assaulted by a man.”
He was found not guilty by a jury of men that included a colonel as the foreman. Romero later learned that at that time only 1% of accused rapists get convicted, a statistic that is not much better today, she said.
“I went through the whole trial; we didn’t get a conviction,” Romero said. “I was treated awful ... I was an E-2. They didn’t even promote me for a whole entire year after that.”
Because she had to be absent from work to be in court, Romero was twice re-assigned but on the same base.
“It became untenable,” Romero said. “It was just unbelievable, the hostility that people had against me, not because I was raped, but because I reported it.”
She had terrible nightmares and was forced into counseling. Finally, the Army decided she had a nervous condition and discharged her. She served only two years of her three-year obligation. She was given a 10% disability and a re-enlistment code of 3, meaning she was not eligible for re-enlistment unless she got a waiver. No one explained that to her, and she did not find out until she tried unsuccessfully to join the Army Reserves.
“I remember contacting the reserve unit and he laughed at me,” Romero said. “He said, ‘You can’t even re-enlist ... We don’t want people like you.’”
Not just a woman’s problem
Men can be victims of MST as well, and the problems that arise from an attack can manifest in many ways.
“We have a lot of people come in,” said Ronald Roberts, commander of the DAV Fry chapter. “It manifests itself with PTSD, so they have anger issues, fear, ED, things like that ... It’s embarrassing for a man to admit that he’s been (assaulted).
“To get over that hump and actually say, ‘I have a problem,’ that’s where all these issues come from. It’s not easy.”
Fast forward to four years ago, when Romero, at the encouragement of her husband, volunteered with the DAV and became the first female service officer at the Fry chapter. As much as she hated talking to men about her experience, Romero talked about the event that night with service officer Bob Conte. He encouraged and helped her file for an increase in her disability payments. That’s when Romero discovered the VA has an entire separate unit to serve those who are victims of MST.
“Any female or male, if they are the victim of military sexual trauma or feel they have been victimized due to military sexual trauma, there’s a number they can call at the VA, and you can get free counseling for that,” Romero said. “You don’t need to have prosecuted this. You don’t even need to have reported this ... They have this program in every single VA hospital.”
Today, besides all the male CSOs, there are five female CSOs at the Fry chapter of the DAV. All CSOs are volunteers but well trained in helping disabled veterans get their benefits. The chapter relies on fundraisers and donations of both time and money to provide the services that are offered.
“We’re here to help any veteran who believes that they have a service-connected injury, an ailment, a disease,” Romero said. “Come to us and let us help you do your paperwork so that we can work your way through the VA system. We never promise anybody a rating because we’re not the VA, but what we can do is know what you need to submit.”