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Through my eyes: Surviving sexual assault

U.S. Air Force Airman Jodi Lange, 20th Medical Support Squadron, poses for an illustration photo depicting an abused woman silenced by her abuser as a result of sexual assault, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. March 25, 2012. Studies show that men, women and children of all ages, races, religions, and economic classes can be and have been victims of sexual assault. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Ashley L. Gardner/ Released)

Airman Jodi Lange, of the 20th Medical Support Squadron, poses for an illustration photo depicting an abused woman silenced by her abuser as a result of sexual assault, at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., March 25, 2012. Studies show that men, women and children of all ages, races, religions and economic classes can be and have been victims of sexual assault. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Ashley L. Gardner)

U.S. Air Force Airman Jodi Lange, 20th Medical Support Squadron, simulates a sexually abused woman watched over by her abuser, closed in with nowhere to go as a result of sexual assault, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. March 25, 2012. Studies show men, women and children of all ages, races, religions, and economic classes can be and have been victims of sexual assault. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ashley L. Gardner/ Released)

Airman Jodi Lange, of the 20th Medical Support Squadron, simulates a sexually abused woman watched over by her abuser, closed in with nowhere to go as a result of sexual assault, at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., March 25, 2012. Studies show men, women and children of all ages, races, religions and economic classes can be and have been victims of sexual assault. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ashley L. Gardner)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (AFNS) -- (Editor's note: "This story is a personal, victim-submitted account of an actual sexual assault and its aftermath. The names and identities of the individuals involved have been omitted or altered to maintain confidentiality.")

"That night, my whole world turned upside down," said Airman Samantha Smith, a sexual assault survivor in the U.S. Air Force.

On the night Smith was remembering, she became a victim of sexual assault and took her first of many steps down the road of recovery.

That night, Smith attended a party with people whom she believed to be her close, trusted friends. Her attacker knew her boyfriend and accompanied her to the party that night. Smith dismissed warnings from other close friends about her would-be attacker and his motives for spending time with her.

"I should have noticed the signs, but I was naive," Smith said.

At the party, Smith drank alcohol despite the fact she was underage. She became drunk and chose to leave with the male "friend" whom she assumed she could trust.

After the party, he drove her back to his apartment where she wound up spending the night.

"When I awoke, he was having intercourse with me," Smith said. "I knew what was happening. But I was trapped in my own body, paralyzed by fear. No one can understand that feeling unless they've been there. I couldn't fight back, I couldn't scream, I couldn't move. Soon after, I blacked out."

Smith woke up the next morning at 9 a.m. and the man had already left.

"I wish I could forget, but I can't," she said.

She first confided in her mother, then in her close friend as she felt those were the only two she could trust.

"My friend made me call the sexual assault response coordinator line," she said. "I was so afraid I would get in trouble for underage drinking. I used to think the SARC would record what you say and tell your commander, first sergeant and supervisors. I was wrong, way wrong!

"They explained to me the difference between restricted and unrestricted reports. I ended up doing a restricted report at first, but later decided to do an unrestricted report," she said.

A restricted report must be kept confidential and cannot be investigated or prosecuted. An unrestricted report allows command notification and engagement as well as the option of investigation.

"After this, I signed a paper and went to Columbia (for) a sexual assault nurse examiner's (investigation)," Smith explained.

This type of forensic medical exam may be performed at hospitals and certain health care facilities by a sexual assault nurse examiner, sexual assault forensic examiner or another medical professional.

The investigation is complex and takes three to four hours on average. These medical and forensic exams are comprehensive and attend to the victim's medical needs and any other special attention the victim may require.

In addition, it is important for the examiner to collect forensic evidence. This is done to ensure that if the victim chooses to report the crime to the authorities they will have access to the stored evidence.

To start, the examiner will write down in detail the victim's medical history, documenting any current medications and pre-existing conditions prior to the assault. Next, there is a detailed head-to-toe examination of the body including an internal exam.

This may include the collection of blood, urine, hair and other body secretion samples as well as the collection of relevant clothing and undergarments. Photo documentation of injuries such as bruises, cuts and scraped skin are also required.

Lastly, the examiner will consult the victim on treatment options for possible sexually transmitted infections to which they may have been exposed during the assault.

Depending on the hospital and state, the victim may also receive prophylaxis treatments, or a referral for follow-up counseling. Prophylaxis treatments are measures taken to maintain health, and prevent the spread of disease or infections. Antibiotic prophylaxis is a common treatment in rape cases in which antibiotics are used to prevent infections. This may also be required in a sexual assault nurse examiner exam.

"The SANE exam is the most degrading medical exam ever," Smith explained. "I cried the whole time, but it had to be done.

"I went to work without telling anyone what happened," she said. "I was watching my back and not talking to anyone. If I did talk, I would sound irate or cry for no reason. I wouldn't go anywhere by myself, because I was scared. Everything was triggering my fear and anger.

"I kept blaming myself for what happened," said Smith. "It's my fault; my clothes were too skimpy; I drank too much; why couldn't I fight back?

"That same week I started counseling off base," she said. "I always thought counseling was for crazy people. I thought I could suck it up and handle it on my own, I was wrong. But my counselor really helped get me through."

Because Smith filed an unrestricted report, she was required to speak with the Office of Special Investigations, which investigates major crimes in the Air Force.

OSI instructed Smith to write down all the details she could remember about her assault. After this they questioned her multiple times about the events that took place during and prior to the assault. The initial process took more than five hours and Smith paid three more visits to OSI in the following weeks.

Air Force legal officials decided to file a complaint under Article 120 Rape and Carnal Knowledge. Shortly after pressing charges, Smith received her SANE exam results back, which confirmed her fears.

"I had about three pages of evidence that this assault actually occurred," Smith said. "Most people would find three pages of evidence a victory on their part. I didn't. I felt dirty and disgusting.

"The legal process was long and grueling. I felt like a lab rat, with no privacy or rights," she said. "Throughout this process, I found out that I was not the first girl he had raped. It made me so mad!

"He assaulted (another) about a year prior to me and got away with it," she said. "Knowing this gave me a little more motivation to bring him to court."

The hearing was scheduled in August, and Smith was given the option not to testify. However, if she refused to testify, she was informed that her case had a high probability of being thrown out.

During a hearing under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the commander designated as the special court-martial convening authority appoints an impartial officer to investigate and review the facts of the case. This officer then makes a recommendation to the convening authority, who decides whether the case will be handled by a court-martial or other means.

"That day was so nerve-wracking for me," Smith said. "I had to tell my story again in front of more than 10 people, including my attacker. I could feel his eyes burning through me as I talked about what happened."

One week following the initial hearing, Smith received news that they had enough evidence to forward the case to court-martial.

"I didn't want to testify again," Smith explained. "When you're on the stand, they rip your story to pieces. They try to make you seem like the worst Airman there is, like the scum of the earth. I debated whether or not I'd testify up to the last minute!

"But, a week before the court martial was to take place, the Area Defense Counsel representing my attacker met with me and explained they were opting to submit a package" to discharge the attacker under less-than-honorable conditions.

"I agreed with it," she said. "As long as I didn't have to see him anymore, I was happy. The Area Defense Counsel then sent the request up the chain of command where it was later approved.

"The day I was told he was being discharged, I cried tears of joy," she said. "I had a weight lifted off my shoulders. Justice had been served.

"I received a letter of reprimand for underage drinking, which was deserved on my part," she said. "I was blessed not to have received anything worse.

"The LOR gave me more motivation to do better for me, and the Air Force," Smith said.

"To this day I still have flashbacks, night terrors and memories," she said. "It doesn't get any easier. I'm still judged by this. Sadly, I'm known as the girl who cried rape.

"I'm not the rape victim you see on 'Law and Order,'" Smith explained. "I'm an average Airman who's been through hell and back. So before you judge someone because of how they act, dress, etc., think about what they might have been through.

"But more importantly, if you're a victim of rape, please come forward to the SARC. The sooner the better," she said.

According to statistics provided by the Department of Defense, about 73 percent of rapes are perpetrated by an individual the victim knows. Also, more than 50 percent of all rape and sexual assault incidents were reported to have occurred within one mile of the victim's home, or at the residence of a family member or friend.

As recorded by the DOD, 17.7 million American women have been victims of an attempted or completed rape. Of all attempted and completed rapes, about 54 percent are not reported to the police, based on the statistical average over the past five years.

From research provided by the DOD, there are many effects that can manifest in a victims life after an assault has occurred. Complications can range from, but are not limited to, substance abuse, sleeping and eating disorders, self-harm, flashbacks, suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder to name a few.

Out of every 100 rapes, 46 are reported to the authorities, 12 lead to an arrest, nine are prosecuted, five lead to a felony conviction, three may spend only one day in jail while the other 97 walk free, as recorded by the DOD.

If you would like more information on sexual assault and sexual assault awareness, please visit Rainn.org. This is a Department of Defense-sponsored website dedicated to the education, prevention and awareness of sexually based assaults and offenses.

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