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Commentary: Make a difference for survivors

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- It took me years to realize that it wasn't my fault. It took even longer than that for me to find my voice -- to tell my story.

My name is Marti Ribeiro, and I'm a survivor of military sexual assault. I was asked to speak last week at the Sexual Assault Awareness Month luncheon. I was asked to tell my story, not because it's unique, but because it wasn't unique. Like so many others, I was assaulted by a fellow servicemember and it went unreported.

This is an uncomfortable topic. But, it's one that needs to be discussed with our co-workers, our leadership and our children. This isn't just happening in the military, it's happening on college campuses and cities across our nation, and it needs to stop.
My goal isn't to bash the Department of Defense on this issue. My goal is to put a face to the statistics and make a change for the better. The route to improve legislation and the process for reporting and prosecuting perpetrators is a long and arduous one. But, we as individuals can make an impact on the survivors and help them heal from this traumatic event.

I've repeatedly asked senior leaders and fellow servicemembers to treat our survivors as if they were your children. If your daughter was a freshman in college and called and said she was raped, I highly doubt the first thing out of your mouth would be "what were you wearing" or "how much have you had to drink?" But, that's what we do to our survivors. As a mother myself, I know that if something that horrendous happened to my daughter, I would stop what I was doing. I would then do whatever I could in order to get her the help she needed to report and heal from the terrible event. I want our senior leaders to do the same.

I spent eight years on active duty and never expected that it would happen to me. I had been in the service for more than seven years and was deployed to Afghanistan when it happened. I didn't "ask for it" by dressing provocatively, flirting or being intoxicated. I was standing at my guard post in full uniform stone sober. I wasn't in trouble for anything like people assume, I'd never spoken a word previously to my attacker, but I knew who he was. Our victim blaming society would like to put the reasons for my attack on me. While there are things I could've done differently, the sole responsibility lies with the perpetrator. It's not the survivor's fault. In my situation, I wasn't drunk and my lapses in judgment should've resulted in counseling from a fellow military member, not rape.

While the act of rape is horrendous and life-altering, the most painful part for some survivors is the betrayal of their beloved service afterward. These are violent crimes, but the real heartache comes in the way survivors are treated after they come forward. I was told if I reported the rape that I would be charged with "dereliction of duty" for setting my weapon 10 feet from me in a combat zone, instead of having it directly on me. Don't do this to our survivors. Provide those who've lived through this terrible event, the support they need to report and heal. You have the chance to make a difference in someone's life.

We're grooming a generation of women who have served honorably, fought bravely and sacrificed for their country. But in return we've torn away their self-esteem and dignity and left them with emotional scars that are almost too much sometimes. Without proper help after being assaulted, the emotional and psychological trauma sometimes turns victims to drugs, alcohol and eventual homelessness. This isn't just about assault. This is about us coming together and helping our survivors get through this, as well as helping their families, who are also affected by this.

The DOD is taking these wonderful women and molding them into well-trained, highly skilled disciplined and phenomenal military professionals -- freely making sacrifices in the service of our country. But, in exchange, you're taking away something that never should've been the price of admission.

Help me make a difference.