KRISTA SHULTZ GREW UP a hundred miles east of Los Angeles, in the overcooked Yucca Valley, listening to her father tell stories about his time as an army linguist in the 1950s. To Shultz, the military was the stuff of fantasies—promising adventure, excitement, and escape from the flat-ironed stretch of highway she called home.
“After high school, like a lot of small-town kids, I wanted out the fastest way possible,” Shultz recalls. “Being a linguist seemed kind of fun, and I thought I could work for the UN or something afterwards and travel.”
After basic training in South Carolina, Shultz aced her language aptitude exam, sending her on a path to learn one of the toughest languages: Arabic. It seemed useless. This was, after all, 1987. The US military’s chief focus was on remnant Cold War animosities, not the Persian Gulf. For the next year and a half, Shultz found herself among the army’s intellectual elite, many of them women. She completed her training as an army interrogator just weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Then Shultz was assigned to an “air assault unit” (specialists inserted into battle zones by helicopter) based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
“It was the first time I’d been with a big army group,” Shultz recalls. “That was the first time I realized that the military was made up of mostly men…and, you know, those kind of men.”
Taunts peppered her evening runs around the base: “Hey baby!” “Nice tits!” During a training exercise for exposure to chemical weapons, her instructor jeered, “I hope I get to scrub you down.” Within weeks of Shultz’s deployment in the Saudi Arabian desert, the catcalls gained an ominous edge when a female soldier was raped by one of her colleagues.
“After that we couldn’t go by ourselves anywhere,” Shultz recalls, “and at night we had to have a male escort.”
Soon after, “Sergeant Scrub Down” (Shultz can’t remember his name) led 30 military intelligence infantrymen into a remote section of the desert for a training exercise. They needed an interpreter. He requested Shultz.
“I was really freaked out,” says Shultz. “We were going to be out there—on the side of a sand dune in the middle of nowhere—for three or four days, and I was the only woman.”
The first night, Shultz’s fears were confirmed. When the unit gathered around a campfire, the sergeant said in a clear voice loud enough for the entire infantry to hear, “The only reason we brought you out here was so we could rape you.”
Shultz’s survival instincts kicked in. She told him she’d shoot anyone who came near her. The soldiers laughed. And the sergeant retorted, “You have to sleep sometime.”
With that, Shultz headed to the big tent where she and the 30 men slept, the only buffer the few feet more separation her cot had from the others. “I could see everyone, I could hear everyone, and they could see me,” she remembers. Shultz picked up her M16, methodically loaded a magazine, laid the gun across her lap and waited. For three days, she didn’t sleep; the gun was always with her, even behind the dunes that served as the latrine.
“I had this feeling of being pressed between two dangers—my people and the enemy—and neither one was safe. They could rape me and kill me and say an Arab did it and nobody would witness it,” she says. “Nothing happened to me, though, and to this day I believe it’s because I didn’t sleep.”
Shultz still doesn’t sleep—not without pills. At the end of her enlistment, only 10 months after being deployed, she could sleep only by turning on all the lights. She took a night job at a convenience store to make her upside-down schedule work.
Insomnia, according to the Roseburg VA’s Hall, is one of the most common symptoms of PTSD. But the diagnosis surprised Shultz. “I thought PTSD was what Vietnam vets had,” she recalls. “I never saw combat. I didn’t see people getting shot. I just couldn’t sleep.”
In war zones, Hall says, sexual trauma can be especially harmful because soldiers are always under threat mentally and emotionally. Often, when the victim isn’t fearful of an external enemy lurking behind a sand dune, she is afraid of her fellow soldiers. The resulting psychological trauma is akin to that experienced by children who are bullied at school and abused at home: there’s no escape and no relief. But the serviceperson’s situation is further complicated by the need for “unit cohesion”—the notion that welfare of the group, the team, must take precedence over the individual. It often precludes victims of MST from reporting assaults at all. “If you’re in a war zone, no matter what else, staying alive is most important,” Hall explains. “For MST victims, there’s the idea that if you tell anyone, you’re going destroy the unit.”
Shultz never turned the sergeant in. There was already enough resentment toward women in the Gulf, she says. But more than a decade later, after moving to Eugene, Shultz sought help from the VA. The VA screens soldiers for military sexual trauma by asking them two questions: In the military, did you ever receive uninvited or unwanted sexual attention? Did anyone ever use force or the threat of force to have sex against your will? A yes to either question qualified Shultz to receive health care for issues related to MST. It’s a relatively new standard created to ensure veterans receive treatment without having to relive or “prove” the trauma, a change that has sent the caseloads soaring for MST counselors like Sonja Fry, whose patient list hovers around 165—three times more than the recommended limit. The heavy caseloads prompted Oregon lawmakers to a pass a House Joint Memorial this spring urging Congress to mandate VA mental health counselors’ caseloads be limited to 60.
A few months after first visiting the VA, Shultz read a Register-Guard article about a soldier arrested for refusing to return to Iraq because she’d been coerced into having sex while she was there. Shultz became incensed. For the first time she revealed her own Gulf experience publicly. “I went willingly to participate in that war believing that the dangers I would face would come from the opposing side,” she wrote in a 2006 letter to the editor. “This changed the moment I was sexually harassed by a soldier who outranked me and had quite a bit of control over me. I became more afraid of the soldiers on my side of the war than I was of the enemy.”
Shultz’s path to treatment proved to be rocky. Originally, she was assigned to a male counselor, but she stopped going because she found she couldn’t confide her experiences in him. Moreover, his waiting room, which was filled with men and military décor, “triggered” her PTSD (a common concern for female veterans, according to Fry). Shultz started seeing Fry this spring and finds the Eugene counselor’s feminine office puts her at ease.
“I just started seeing her, but I’m like, where have you been all my life?” says Shultz.
Toward the end of our conversation, Shultz pulls out a tattered journal.
“I wrote about it,” she says, thumbing through the worn, tidily inked pages. “If I hadn’t written, I think I would have revised it all in my memories. So to me, this is like my 21-year-old self talking to my 41-year-old self and saying this really did happen, and it really was hard for you.”