After she was raped in the Navy, Maricela Guzman survived an abusive marriage, PTSD, and an attempted suicide. Now she’s fighting to make sure it won’t happen to other women.
Maricela Guzman, twenty-one, was dressed in her clean, pressed Navy uniform as she paced the empty hallway well past midnight. Her heavy-soled footsteps echoed off the walls. She was small—five foot three—and in great shape after all the prep for boot camp. Officially, she was “standing watch”—in Navy fantasyland, guarding her ship. In reality, she was in the hallways of a dormitory in Great Lakes, Illinois. All Navy recruits had to do it, ostensibly for practice, really to increase their vulnerability. Maricela’s eyelids threatened to drop closed at any second.
She kept herself awake imagining the maps pinned on her bedroom wall in South Central LA. She used to lie on her bed staring at the expanses of foreign lands—Africa was her favorite. She repeated some of the countries she could remember in her head: “Mali, Ghana, Senegal…”
Suddenly, someone burst from nowhere and grabbed her from behind, covering her neck with one sweaty hand and her mouth with the other. Before Maricela could process what was happening, the attacker dragged her into the dark stairwell and was clawing at her black leather belt. She never saw his face as he raped her, but the chest of his uniform indicated that he was a Recruit Division Commander—a superior officer. The light had been turned off, meaning that the attack had been premeditated. It was Maricela’s first sexual experience.
“The person I was at that time died,” Maricela, now thirty-two, says at our first meeting. She’s wearing black wide-legged pants, sneakers, and a brown zip-up jacket. Her jet-black hair is pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. Her skin is a pale brown, her lips purple and full. She is beautiful, but she radiates profound exhaustion.
“What did you do after you were attacked?” I ask, tentatively.
“I can’t talk about that yet,” she answers. She looks shut down, not angry. “I’m still working on that in therapy.” And then she reaches into her purse and pulls out a Prozac. “Speaking of therapy,” she says, eyebrows raised, and washes it down with tea.
She’s spent the last ten years trying to recover her old self, or at least adjust to the new Maricela—wounded but resilient, angry as hell, exhausted but inexhaustible.
Therapy wasn’t talked about openly in the Navy, and her family—working-class Mexican immigrants—thought it was for “crazy people.” Other female veterans first convinced her to try.
Between 2003 and 2009, 191,500 women served in Afghanistan and Iraq, twenty-six times as many as served in Vietnam. Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, reported that “by September 2008, 592 American female soldiers had been wounded in action and 102 had died in Iraq, more than in the Korean, Vietnam, first Gulf, and Afghanistan wars combined.” According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), women make up 15 percent of the total military. As women have become more instrumental to the U.S. military, the last few years have seen a high rate of military sexual assault. It’s been the subject of investigations by media outlets including the New York Times and Salon.com. Responding to public outrage, the Defense Department created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2005. Benedict has reported that one in three women serving in the military is sexually attacked by comrades and that “harassment is virtually universal.”
Sitting across from Maricela, looking into her dark eyes, makes these statistics painfully real. Maricela’s military experiences, her rape especially, have changed her from the inside out. After our first meeting, I sat in my car and cried before turning on the engine.
Maricela was born in Los Angeles in 1977, the oldest child of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Her mother worked in a succession of factories. Her father has worked as a dishwasher in a fancy hotel in Century City for thirty-two years.
Maricela’s parents obtained U.S. residency and, when she was fifteen, right after the Rodney King riots, the family moved to a home in South Central LA. Maricela, the best English speaker in the family, filled out all of the paperwork. Three years later, she dropped out of high school and started working at McDonald’s to support her family.
At eighteen, the finances back under control, she earned her high school diploma while still working part-time. She started at East Los Angeles Community College, determined to be the first person in her family to hold a degree.
Her grind was overwhelming. She’d wake up at four a.m. to fry hash browns and classes didn’t end until nine at night. Near the end of Maricela’s first semester, a military recruiter targeted her. “It was a surreal experience,” Maricela says. “Within thirty minutes this guy knew my entire life story. It was like he saw through me.”
He told her how the military was a great opportunity to get money for college, see the world, and do something noble for the country that had given her parents a better life. Maricela signed without saying a word to anyone in her family.
Maricela’s flight to boot camp, near Chicago, was the first time she’d ever been on a plane. After landing, she joined a bunch of other recruits on a bus to Great Lakes, Illinois. The intake troops made her dump the contents of her duffle out and send just about everything that might remind her of her former life—her books, soap, shampoo—back home.
The next twenty-four hours were a blur of paperwork, fittings, and intensive waiting. But no sleep. “They’re trying to break you down from the very beginning,” Maricela said.
In her co-ed group she connected instantly with a woman named Debbie. Like Maricela, Debbie was a little bit older than most of the recruits and her mother was also an immigrant (from El Salvador).
At first, Maricela managed the workouts and didn’t mind the rigidity of the routine. She loved learning the military jargon which was like a foreign language. It felt a little silly to go on watches and write logs when they were all just sleeping in dorms in the middle of nowhere, but she didn’t mind it.
Until everything changed. “The night I was raped altered my entire existence,” Maricela said. “Suddenly things that had felt easy, felt really challenging. Not just mental things, but physical things too.”
“I survived by going silent,” Maricela remembered. “I became completely robotic.” You might assume that such a reaction would go unnoticed in the military, but there’s a distinction between being obedient and being too silent. Her blank stare started to stick out.
“Do you think I have all day? Drop and give me another twenty.” She did. This time the tears fell out of her eyes, splashing on the floor below.
The drill sergeant asked Debbie, who had taken on a leadership role, “Why is Guzman suddenly so quiet?”
Her friend, ignorant of the assault, shrugged and said, “We’ll just have to break her down more.”
“She didn’t have any idea what happened to me,” Maricela said. “So this was her way of building me up as a soldier.”
They began giving Maricela more reps than her peers—more push-ups, more pull-ups, more laps. Worst of all, they gave her more watches. The Navy is known for using sleep deprivation on new recruits, but every watch duty retraumatized the increasingly-internal Maricela.
Eventually, feeling on the edge of a nervous breakdown, she decided to tell her supervisor. She turned the knob on his office door and opened it, and blurted out, “I need to speak with you.”
He stood slowly with a menacing look on his face. “Drop and give me twenty.” Maricela had forgotten Navy protocol for approaching a supervisor—knock on door, stand at attention, request to speak. She did twenty push-ups, tears beginning to fill her eyes.
“Now get up and approach again,” he shouted. Maricela stood, but couldn’t move. She was frozen. Her supervisor’s voice got louder, his tone more enraged: “Do you think I have all day? Drop and give me another twenty.” She did. This time the tears fell out of her eyes, splashing on the floor below. She stood.
“You figure out how to do it right now?” he asked, just inches from her face. Again, she couldn’t move. “There is a procedure…” His words became indecipherable to Maricela. It was as if her mind was systematically shutting down, her emotions taking over. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She saw his hand drop, pointing at the floor, and knew to drop and give him another twenty.
When she stood, he stared at her in disgust for a few long seconds and then motioned toward the door. She turned on her heel and walked out. Maricela wouldn’t attempt to tell anyone else about her rape for eight years.
When Maricela was stationed on Diego Garcia, starting in March 1999, she began to develop an activist consciousness. Diego Garcia is an island a thousand miles south of India, home to a joint U.S.-UK military base that serves as a naval refueling station. The base was home to the planes whose bomb drops over Iraq marked the beginning of the invasion on March 19, 2003.
On her second day on the island, Maricela heard that an old friend had a really bad sunburn and she brought over a special cream that her mother had made for her. In the dorm she met her future husband, who I’ll call Jason.
Maricela remained wary of men. She’d had sex once after boot camp, but it had been disappointing. “I only did it because I wanted to replace the abrasive memory of my rape with something else.”
There were four men for every woman on Diego Garcia, so Maricela anticipated feeling like prey. Meeting her husband changed everything. “Jason repelled other men,” she said. “They wouldn’t mess with me because they knew we were a couple.”
Jason, a middle-class college boy from Ohio, was taken by Maricela’s beauty—so foreign to him that he actually nicknamed her “jungle girl.” (It wasn’t until years later that Maricela found it offensive.) He introduced her to George Orwell and Joseph Conrad. Maricela devoured Heart of Darkness and spent long, satisfying hours discussing it with Jason.
The book was more relevant than they could have imagined.
Maricela grew disillusioned with the military and emerged as an outspoken critic. And yet she still wasn’t able to name the outrage she felt over her own rape.
“All of a sudden I’m looking around, and I realize that the staff on base are being treated like my parents. They’re working for slave wages,” Maricela said. The U.S. military imported workers from the Philippines to cook and clean. According to Maricela, they live in shacks and are subjected to a series of dehumanizing rules: they are not allowed to bring spouses with them (but can bring one child of working-eligible age) and they can go home for two weeks every other year.
Maricela grew disillusioned with the military and emerged as an outspoken critic. And yet she still wasn’t able to name the outrage she felt over her own rape. She didn’t even tell Jason. His college sweetheart had also been sexually assaulted, and he talked about what a huge presence her pain was in their relationship. Maricela didn’t want to put him through that again.
But her pain still emerged and the couple began to fight. “I would get triggered and become really emotionally abusive to him,” she said. Maricela would yell and scream, curse at him and call him names. “I’m crazy. I don’t know why,” she would tell him after their worst fights. “You should leave me.”
“It’s the military,” he’d respond. “It’s this toxic environment. It will be fine once we leave.”
Maricela and Jason married in March 2000 in Los Angeles. Shortly after, they were stationed in Naples, Italy, where they would stay for the remaining two and a half years of their service. Maricela thrived in her computer engineering role. Workaholism both earned her kudos from her supervisors and helped numb her pain, as did alcohol, which she and her husband were increasingly dependent on.
Leading up to her June 2002 date, the officers in her field did everything they could to get her to stay. But she was determined to go back home to Los Angeles and finish her college degree.
When Maricela and Jason resettled in Santa Monica, she found that she couldn’t function. She couldn’t find a job. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t concentrate. She felt “broken.” All she did was watch television.
They had increasingly physical fights, usually revolving around Maricela’s despondency. Jason resented her lack of motivation. At one point, he pounded her against a wall by her shoulders so hard that her back gave out and she had to stay in bed for three days.
In California she began to notice the class and cultural differences between herself and her husband. She felt like Eliza Doolittle. “That whole ‘jungle girl’ thing started to get really ugly,” she once told me. “It was like he polished me up, taught me things, and showed me off to his screenwriter friends.”
Maricela thought about leaving Jason, but rationalized that she deserved the abuse because of all she had put him through. In June 2003, he gave her an ultimatum: “If you don’t get better by our anniversary in March 2004, I will leave you.” On Valentine’s Day 2004, he asked for a separation. Maricela moved back in with her family.
In June 2004, Maricela walked into the bedroom of her childhood home, opened the bottle of sleeping pills on her bureau, and poured about fifty pills onto the bed. She started slugging them down, a handful at a time. “It was as if it happened instantly,” she said. In fact, her desperation had been metastasizing; she had been fighting with her siblings and having nasty conversations with Jason, who was calling her a “gold digger.” Leaving him had done nothing to stave off her PTSD symptoms. She still hadn’t told anyone about her rape.
Maricela’s heavy eyelids ached open as her mother’s panicked, tearful face hovered over her. She screamed over and over: “Velas, mi hija! Velas!” (Stay awake, my daughter! Stay awake!)
When Maricela described this moment, it was the first time I saw her tear up. “I thought I was taking my last breath,” she said. “I had survived up to that point by telling stories—about the corrupt military, about my abusive husband, about screwed-up American politics. I was telling the truth, just not the whole truth.” That would emerge only when she found a group of women veterans who gave her permission to speak it.
Maricela’s church became the Santa Monica pier. Starting in 2004, she went every Sunday morning, joining the quiet line of people that snaked underneath the pier toward stacks of white crosses—one for each American casualty in the Iraq War—which they’d plant on the beach. She loved the feeling of the heavy wood in her hands, the physical exertion of trudging up the beach to place the cross, and then the smell of the ocean as she headed back to the pier to get another. It was physical, visceral, communal. At dawn, they would place the crosses in the cool beach sand, and at dusk, they would remove them and restack them under the pier.
She’d heard about this weekly reminder of the cost of war from an empathetic English professor at Santa Monica College, where she decided to finish up her degree. He was part of Veterans for Peace, which hosted “Arlington West.”
“It was very therapeutic for me,” Maricela said. “At first I kept to myself—just showed up each Sunday and worked alongside the other volunteers, had my moment, and then left.” But by August 2005 Maricela was a fixture in the community and was invited down to Crawford, Texas, to camp near President George W. Bush’s ranch with other veterans protesting the war.
As one woman described her attack and the years of shame and silence, Maricela sat still, stunned. Every word, every feeling, was familiar. It was as if she were being awakened from the dead.
In the Texas heat, a hundred or so veterans sat around swapping stories about Iraq and how their service still weighed on them. Maricela learned about PTSD for the first time. She didn’t yet recognize her own symptoms, believing that only those who had seen combat could have PTSD, a common misconception. Instead, PTSD can be caused by a range of military experiences, from being sexually assaulted or harassed to witnessing the death of friends.
She became more involved with veterans groups. During an all-female retreat in Los Angeles in 2006—hosted by an organization called Vets 4 Vets—Maricela first heard women veterans speak about being raped in the military. As one woman described her attack and the years of shame and silence, Maricela sat still, stunned. Every word, every feeling, was familiar. It was as if she were being awakened from the dead.
Hours later, Maricela sat down with the two female therapists who were on site and said, “I think I need to talk.”
“Okay,” said one, gently moving forward. “The first thing we ask all of our women veterans is: have you ever been sexually assaulted?”
Maricela sobbed, her silence finally broken.
“For the first time I realized it wasn’t just something wrong with me. It was something wrong with the movement.”
Maricela began therapy and grew increasingly involved in the antiwar movement. After Hurricane Katrina she planned and facilitated a Vets 4 Vets trip to New Orleans. In the wake of the storm they lost themselves in gutting houses and putting up drywall.
Maricela also started to notice that some of the same racist and sexist dynamics of the U.S. military were being played out on a smaller stage among antimilitary leaders. At the Veterans for Peace convention in 2006, she noticed that the majority of speakers were white and male. She also continued to hear “combat” emphasized, as if those who hadn’t seen a roadside bomb explode couldn’t know suffering, or hadn’t earned the right to speak against the war.
Maricela mostly kept her thoughts to herself until she met Eli Painted Crow, another veteran, who would become her friend and mentor. Maricela says, “When I first met Eli, I was intimidated. She was so strong. She really validated all of these things I’d seen but didn’t want to say anything about because I thought I should just do what was good for the cause. Eli pointed out that there was a real lack of diversity among the antiwar leadership. For the first time I realized it wasn’t just something wrong with me. It was something wrong with the movement.”
It dawned on Maricela that she had been doing unpaid labor for Vets 4 Vets without even considering that she might deserve compensation, much less asking whether her peer organizers—mostly men—were being paid. When she tried to initiate these conversations with the leadership, she was rebuffed, even guilt-tripped. They insinuated that any time or money not spent on direct services meant risking further suicides among veterans.
She wanted a group of her own.
Along with fourteen other women, Maricela founded the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in 2007, “to improve the welfare of U.S. servicewomen and all women veterans.”
Wearing a boxy brown suit and pumps, Maricela looked more like an insurance sales rep than a veterans activist. She stood at a lectern and looked nervous: “To this day, the VA has not honored my claim for posttraumatic stress disorder. In 2004 I tried suicide. The reason I’m here today is to make sure that other women are healed. My life was almost stolen, and I need to make sure that other lives are saved.”
SWAN had been invited to participate in a congressional roundtable on the VA’s preparedness for women veterans. Held about a week before Memorial Day 2009, the event was intended to explore access to health care. For SWAN, it was the beginning of high-profile activism.
Eli Painted Crow stood nearby, dressed in a Western-patterned blazer, a brown bandana tied flat and tight across her forehead, and big silver rings on almost every finger. Her face was set in a grimace, as if she couldn’t stand being in the halls of power.
The large room was filled with congressional aides milling around in their skirt suits, with BlackBerries and cups of Starbucks. Twenty women veterans advocates—most in their fifties and sixties—sat at one end of the square of long tables. Anu Bhagwati, SWAN’s executive director, took her seat.
Anu wore a black pant suit and exuded benign professionalism. But the rest of the SWAN crew proudly sported an alternative style—they were dressed in boots and men’s blazers; one had a piercing and a big mane of wavy, untamed hair; another had barely any hair, displaying the tattoos on her neck. They stood out against the gilded picture frames and Ann Taylor pant suits.
The congressional hearing began without most of the members present. Congressman Bob Filner, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, began with the obvious: “The VA of the twenty-first century must meet the needs of all veterans.”
I sensed the congressmen’s notion of what needs to be done to be woefully inadequate.
The advocates seated were invited to give remarks on the most pressing problems facing women veterans and to make recommendations. Anu was the second to speak. She testified:
“The last place many survivors of MST [military sexual trauma] want to go for treatment or counseling is a VA hospital. My first trip to the Manhattan VA Hospital was a nightmare. I felt like I was running a gauntlet as I stepped into the lobby and was confronted by a sea of hostile faces, all of them male.”
Maricela nodded vigorously. Anu continued, the anger unmistakable beneath her clear, dignified presentation:
“Most veterans and VA employees assume women veterans are secretaries, wives, or cleaning staff… The first psychiatrist I saw rolled his eyes at me when I told him I needed to talk to a female doctor. The MST counselor was too overbooked to take me on as a patient. A physician was so shocked that I had been a Marine that he told me I looked like a ‘shopkeeper.’ To add insult to injury, despite the detailed evidence I submitted supporting service-connected trauma from MST, including witness statements, the VA rejected my claim.”
After she finished, there were a few moments of silence, and then Filner said, “We’ve got a big job.”
“Yes, you do,” Anu replied.
Congressman Tim Walz, who repeatedly referred to veterans as “warriors,” was red with anger.
“Are you telling me, I mean, is there consensus among you, that no progress has been made with regard to sexual assault?” he asked, looking around with pleading eyes.
The entire table of women—veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and even World War II—nodded in unison.
“That’s tragic,” Walz said, shaking his head. “Just tragic.”
There was something incongruous about hearing these statistics and experiences discussed in calm and official tones in a pompous room, when we’re really talking about women being assaulted, their uniforms ripped, their underwear filled with blood, their faces smeared with dirt and tears. We’re talking about violence characterized by anger, humiliation, and bodily fluids. We’re talking about the moments when women become unrecognizable to themselves, when their sense of safety is obliterated, when their lives are forever changed.
Maricela shook her head and doodled on the VA pamphlets. She looked out the window as if she wanted to escape.
More importantly, I sensed the congressmen’s notion of what needs to be done to be woefully inadequate. They will entertain the notion that legislation or VA policy needs to change, but the idea that military culture needs a fundamental overhaul is beyond their imagination or power. They get the catharsis of their own outrage, but they won’t prevent the next Maricela from being raped.
Systemic change like this feels daunting, at best, and impossible, at worst. In fact, as SWAN has continued to develop as an organization, they’ve been careful not to denigrate military culture as a whole. Instead, they are focusing on supporting women veterans today and making it safer for women to serve tomorrow.
Maricela explains: “People talk about the military as such a big system. I’m not there to break the system. I’m there to educate people who want to go into the system so they know these are the problems. I wish I didn’t have to deal with this trauma, but in order for me to survive and understand what I’m going through, I have to fight this—not for myself, but for the other women and men who are dealing with this problem. I want this to end here and if it takes me the rest of my life, I will do it.”
Courtney E. Martin is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and an editor of Feministing.com. A 2002 recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, she is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women and coauthor of The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive. Her work frequently appears in the Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, and on AlterNet, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.