This piece mentions the topic of sexual trauma. We ask that you use your discretion.
Everyone dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. My dream was to be in the United States Army. Actually, it was to be a mermaid but the Army was always my number two if the whole mermaid thing didn’t pan out.
I embraced everything about the Army. Where others found it difficult, I thrived. Even when I broke my foot in numerous places, I didn’t tell anyone. I pushed on till it became too unbearable to even walk. Off to the doctor I went and was ordered to take 30 days of convalescence leave to heal up. If only I knew then what I know now, I never would have taken it.
The last week of my leave I connected with a friend of mine who was stationed nearby at a marine base. They invited me to a house party. I did my hair and put on my cutest western jeans and a white halter top. The date was June 18.
When I arrived at the residence, there were way more people than I anticipated so I decided to leave. I found the acquaintance that had invited me to the party and uttered my apologies. He asked if he could walk me to my car and I said yes. When we stepped between two cars parked on the street, I noticed his roommate was there. What took place next will be eternally seared in my memory.
I won’t go into all of the details, but know that it was horrendous and brutal. The life I had, the me I knew, was gone permanently. A part of me perished that night.
Once back on the base where I was stationed, I broke down. Dreams of adventure and travel were now replaced with nightmares of what took place over and over and over again. Flashbacks became a constant thing, triggered by a smell, someone’s voice, or something as simple as a touch to my shoulder.
While hospitalized I started therapy. Therapy was supposed to help me process and heal, but I was paired with a therapist that told me to “forgive” the men who did this just two weeks after the event.
I was eventually medically discharged and all the dreams I had of a lengthy military career ended. Scarred both mentally and physically, I tried my best to pick up the shattered pieces and get help at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This began another nightmare of sorts. If lucky, you’ll see the same doctor when you return for sessions, but most of the time you don’t. So for people like me with PTSD, that means having to retell your story on loop. Each time destroying you a little more.
About two years ago, I was assigned to a therapist at the VA in my area that could address MST (Military Sexual Trauma). I was elated by the thought of seeing someone qualified to treat what happened. I was a child visiting Disneyland for the first time. I let myself have hope after such a long time when hope didn’t seem to exist anymore. Two days prior to the appointment I received a phone call. The psychiatrist that was handling all MST patients had resigned.
I started to question everything about myself and my worth. The darkness poured around me the same way fog envelopes shipping vessels on the ocean. Why did I survive? Why couldn’t I have just died that night? I no longer knew who I was. More times than I’d like to admit, I teetered on the edge of ending it all.
As with most veterans, I wear a mask. That mask allows me to smile at the news of your wedding. Laugh at the latest antics of your children. When home alone, the mask comes off. It’s where I break down. The only time I go outside is to let my dogs out. It can take weeks before I have the physical and emotional strength to exit the safety of my home and pretend to be a functional human once again.
When I did harness the energy and strength to try again, I began a quest to find programs outside of the VA that would help me reclaim myself. Help me come out of the darkness. Help me love myself.
That’s when I came across a nonprofit called Mission 22. Looking at the wide variety of programs they offered—wellness, rock climbing excursions, sleep and mood therapy—was like waking up on Christmas morning as a five-year-old kid to a tree surrounded on all sides by presents. I was excited. Here was a place that embraced my brokenness. For the first time in many, many years I was offered a flashlight to help me pierce the darkness and realize that I wasn’t alone.
Beyond the programs, Mission 22 also gave me actual hope for a future that wasn’t so bleak. I never thought I would utter that word in reference to myself: future. What a wonderful word.
So as I look toward the future, I have come to accept that I may always feel broken. The good news? I am no longer facing this struggle alone. Am I completely healed? Hell no, but each day I’m a little stronger than the one before.
Kat Lanzarotta is an ambassador for Mission 22, a non-profit that combats the ever-rising veteran suicide rate. At events of all kinds, Kat helps bring awareness to the war against veteran suicides by talking to fellow veterans and family members of veterans about M22 and the programs that are available to them. You can find out more at https://www.mission22.com.
You can support the work of both TWLOHA and Mission 22 by preordering the “Mission” shirt in the Online Store here.