AT AGE 23, the only female Air Force jet engine mechanic in a shop run by a supervisor who blithely announced that women belong at home, Heather Smith recalls hearing the first murmurs of trouble: “They’d say, ‘We know how to tell if you’re a real redhead, you know….’”
It was 1983. Smith (who agreed to be interviewed under a pseudonym) felt her only choice was to keep quiet about the remarks. Keep her head down. Do her work. But she needed a friend, so she went out with one of her colleagues, a fellow mechanic she had met at tech school in Illinois. He seemed safe.
“I didn’t expect it,” Smith says, looking at her hands and pursing her lips. She leaves the “it”—the date rape—hanging.
In 2009, Clinical Psychology Review published a study confirming that many women who experience military sexual trauma are more likely to become victims of domestic violence as well. The study called for further research to confirm the finding. Smith could stand as evidence.
Within four months of the rape, Smith married a different airman from another shop. She didn’t talk to him about the rape or the harassment. “You just suck it up and act like it doesn’t bother you, or they’ll really get you,” she explains. Three weeks after their nuptials, Smith’s husband started shoving her around. He threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Smith got a brief reprieve when her husband was transferred to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, but a few months later she received orders to join him. She arrived in the fall of 1984, and it was only a matter of days before the pushing escalated to violent attacks.
“He’d take a hammer to me, choke me, kick me, rape me, lock me in one of the rooms in the house so I couldn’t leave,” Smith remembers, her voice trembling. “I told the guys in the shop if I didn’t show up one day, it was because he’d killed me.”
By October, almost all of Smith’s long, thick locks had fallen out.
The couple lived in Germany for five years. MPs were called to their house at least a dozen times, sometimes by Heather, sometimes by neighboring military couples concerned about the violence. But her husband was never charged with anything.
“They didn’t take any disciplinary action because they said it would hurt his military career,” Smith explains. “His supervisor even told me that basically they looked at it as if I was the problem because I turned him in.”
Eventually, Smith packed up the kids and left. Like many domestic violence stories, it wasn’t a clean break; it would take years and a move to Oregon before she fully split from her husband. But her new world came crashing down in 1997 when the cumulative effect of a decade of abuse sent her tailspinning into a nervous breakdown.
“I was just functioning less and less,” Smith says. “I’d go to work, get the kids, come home, figured I’d survived the day, and just go to bed.”
Smith checked into an outpatient mental health program through Providence that ultimately led her to be treated for PTSD at the VA. The Portland VA Medical Center prefers two treatments for PTSD: cognitive processing therapy, the talking method most people associate with counseling; and prolonged exposure therapy, a method pioneered (partly in Portland) by noted psychologists Paula Schnurr and Matthew Friedman in the early 2000s. The treatment is based on the premise that avoidance keeps PTSD going. “You get relief when you avoid the cues that remind you of the horrific event,” explains Irene Powch, a VA psychologist who specializes in PTSD. “So you stay away even more.” Prolonged exposure therapy gradually introduces PTSD sufferers to cues that might set them off in a safe environment, so they can learn a new response. For example, if a patient avoids crowds due to memories of an Iraqi marketplace where he or she saw a horrific bombing, Schnurr and Friedman’s therapy would send the patient into a crowded mall.
“You have to learn that it’s safe,” says Ashlee Whitehead, the military sexual trauma coordinator at the Portland VA Medical Center. “I have not had a veteran go through the therapy completely who hasn’t gotten something huge from it.”
But the treatment is expensive, both to administer and to train therapists in, which results in a lack of providers. This shortage was part of the motivation for the passage of SB 276 (see Codifying Care) , which encourages the VA to share specialized knowledge (like PTSD treatment) outside the VA, thus creating a larger pool of practitioners from which veterans like Smith can receive treatment.
Today, Smith lives in Southeast with her oldest daughter and still gets weekly individual and group counseling through the VA. The sessions haven’t taken away the hurt caused by 10 years of abuse, but they have helped her contend with her ongoing reactions to it.
“I guess I always felt like I was on the outside of a chain-link fence looking in at the other people. They were OK, but I wasn’t,” she says. “In group we understand each other and where we come from.”