Tribute to Michael: A Military Story

The pioneering documentary The Invisible War has directed a spotlight to the problem of rape in the U.S. military. One voice in particular stuck out to me, a man named Michael who joined the service right out of college. Michael was brutally gang raped by fellow servicemen. And Michael’s rape is shockingly common. The reality is anyone, and everyone is vulnerable to becoming a sexual violence target.

But the issue of male rape, which happens to over 30,000 men in the military, made less than 5 minutes of the documentary. Why? Stigma. Men especially are likely to be silenced by the crime. Russell Strand, a Chief Family Advocate in the Law Enforcement Training Division of the U.S. Army, observes in the film: “Masculinity cannot be victimized, because if you’re a leader, if you’re a masculine person and you’re victimized then you are weak.”

But, Michael’s story shows both the tragedy of male rape and a glimmer of hope for survivors.

Meet Michael, 42, and his wife Geri.
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Michael joined the service in 1972, right out of high school, and he loved it. He was attracted to being able to travel and get educated through his time in the service. He felt like he was living the dream. But one day his entire world was turned upside down.

When he was 19, he went to the chow hall alone. All the sudden he found himself being raped as other service men pulled down his pants. He was frightened and humiliated and, perhaps worst of all, silenced. He was told to shut up or he might die. And that’s exactly what he did. For over 30 years he remained silent about  the crime.

After his rape, Michael felt like he had lost his identity as a “man.” It was absolutely devastating. He couldn’t protect himself and he was scared to death to even report the rape to his commander.  That single act destroyed essential parts of his life. Unable to cope with the emotional consequences of the rape, his past marriages suffered. He continued to blame himself for the rape and choose not to expose his pain of the trauma to anyone In fact, Michael just recently told Geri, his current wife of over 20 years, about the crime. He was afraid she would leave him and it was one of the scariest moments of his life when he told her. This would be the first time he would tell anyone-ever-of his rape. Geri was horrified, saddened and angry for Michael, and committed to supporting him as he speaks out. After 30 years of remaining silent, Michael felt he had to speak up about their sexual violence in order to move on with his healing.

Michael remembers what it felt like to release such painful and humiliating memories. Michael shared how he held back tears, “We sat together and sobbed. It felt like this great weight had been lifted off of me.” It wasn’t medication that cured him; it was the simple act of sharing his testimony with someone he loved and someone who cared about him that saved him.

After he exposed the truth to Geri, Michael was able to move forward in his healing. He now has become a living example of what happens to men when they are raped, and how it’s possible move forward. Michael understood that what happened to him was in fact a crime, and it was something he no longer had to be ashamed of. Sometimes these stories don’t end with a happy ending, but luckily Michael’s decision to share his story has allowed him to become a role model for other survivors. And fortunately, Geri continues to support Michael in his healing process, one that has been painful and agonizing. Now Michael knows he is not alone, that Geri will be there to help him recover from the shame he had placed on himself for 30 years.

Michael’s powerful testimony of male rape violence, of which some male survivors have describe as the “stripping of their manhood,” turns into a story of forgiveness, peace, hope and most importantly love. The sad thing is, anyone-almost everyone-can be a victim, or a survivor, of rape. And because of the way we view masculinity in society, male rape survivors find it harder and more shameful to speak up because they will be viewed as “weak”. Since men are assigned the role of “protector,” rape assaults a fundamental sense of personal identity and sense of place. Despite the inherently violent nature of the crime, male survivors view society as unsympathetic, or, worse, told to “man up.”

Men are held to a different standard than women, a standard that can be harder to voice and continues to hold them silent in their trauma. They are not just ashamed of their rape, they are expected to know how to protect themselves. If they can’t, too many commanders blame the men by dismissing them as not being “man enough.”

As a society, we need to be more outspoken about male rape to allow male survivors to heal. We need to hear their voice so we can better understand what they need to move forward. Michael found peace in reclaiming his voice and I hope it serves as an inspiration for the thousands of other men to begin their own personal journey of recovery. I know Michael’s story is not unique, but he had the courage to share it with the world. The first step of healing is becoming aware.

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Peace, Chai and Koli

From the humble words of the Dali Lama, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” To heal from violence takes a lifelong commitment. It is a journey that involves many components from a sense of spirituality, to personal motivation, to a shift in the mindset of how we view the complexity of violence. I learned importance of  strength, and the necessity of peace, when I was living in Dharamshala, India two summers ago. During my stay I connected with survivors of violence who had been through horrific acts of violence, but refused to give up hope. It was their religious spirituality, their desire of human affection, and sense of compassion, that gave them the strength to move past the terror and reclaim their human dignity.

I was living around thousands Buddhist monks and refugees who had all fled the violence of Tibet-completely by foot-an almost 2,000 mile journey. As I sat in coffee shops, took treks in the Himalayans mountains, or simply sat peacefully and watched the prayer flags and “Free Tibet” banners fly with a sense of purpose, I found inspiration in their 50 year plus fight for freedom. As I listened to story, after story, none ever ended in the disbelief that freedom could not become a reality.

They now lived in India to be with the Dali Lama, a man known among the people as the Ocean of Wisdom. The Dali Lama is one of the greatest living spiritual leaders to the Buddhist religion. The Dali Lama was exiled from Tibet in 1959, and he fled the violence to India, still currently his place of residence. And thousands of Buddhists continue to make the trek through the Himalayans to fight for their nation’s freedom, and to be with their guru. The Dali Lama is not just a religious figure to this people, he is a healer, a storyteller of wisdom, and a body of hope for the people Tibet. The hope that one day their country will be free, and they will be reunited with their families.

Hidden in the mountains, was the quaint town of Dharmshala. The body and soul of the Tibetan refuge community. I grew close to one particular monk named Koli. He had fled the violence from Burma and had come to India to learn English. He stayed in Mumbai during the winter months, and came to Dharamshala during the summer months to cool off and learn English. Koli looked like your typical orange robe, bald, yoga shaped-monk. As I began to form a relationship with him, I became inspired by his personal story of seeking justice, truth and freedom in his every day life.

It was his kind smile and wisdom that kept me asking questions, wanting to learn and discover more. He had shared with me parts of his past that were painful to voice, but he knew I wanted to listen. Hearing the horror from Koli’s personal story made me realize how many issues were still hidden by today’s media. If even I was oblivious to this state of affairs in Burma, affecting millions, how many other people were simply unaware? I had to dig deeper.

I wanted to learn more and he wanted to teach me so as I continued to teach him English, he continued to tell me more about his country. At one point, I remember him holding back tears, and all I could think of was that this is the happiest man I had ever met. He left his family behind and moved forward in reclaiming his life as a monk, a teacher, and also a healer. He still had not given up hope that one day the war and violence would be over.  That one day he would be back in his family’s arms. (That is, if his family was still alive.)  It was through his sense of peace that be continued to push himself and ultimately the Tibetan people-in the fight for justice.

The life of a monk is one of peace and humbleness, but we must not forget they human. They still have memories and flashbacks of their terror, as they are not immune to the pain. Most importantly, through peace and compassion, they strive to become better people. They taught me peace in a way that was extremely important for my own personal healing, and I can truly say, Koli peacefully captured my heart, showing me what it meant to be human. He showed me that for some violence is apart of life, but we must never forget to move forward in our journey of living. It is how we choose to view our own struggles and lead a hand for others to move move forward. I hope in the near future I can share another moment with Koli. To laugh and cry, once again, over a cup of chai. And sit together, listening to the sounds of the silence of the mountains, and feel completely human.

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Jane

Meet Jane.

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A strong, hardworking, and humble woman that lives in a rural village outside of the capital of Uganda, Jane left her abusive husband because she was given a special opportunity: ownership of a cow.  A cow has a lot of worth in Ugandan culture, economically and socially. And because of this animal, Jane was given a chance to become an independent farmer and an empowered woman. She was given the economic power raise her family on her own without the constant, daily threat of domestic violence. Now that has land and animals to tend, she can decide what to do with the money she makes for her family.

Things continue to change for the status of women in Uganda as they are given opportunities to own animals and property, proving in their small community that they can become part of the workforce and become more than just a woman.  But it’s not only the women that benefit the boys, the future men of Uganda share in the empower. Jane sits down with her son and together they decided where the money should be spent each week. With the help of her son, and one other worker, they work all of the labor on the farm.

In a week she will make about $4 for her vegetables. With the help of a cow, even more money can be made. She relies on her son to take care of selling to the market, while she tends to the land and animals. In Ugandan culture women get married, birth children, and men sell in the produce in the market. Now that women are having the ability to prove themselves, however, this traditional social outlook is changing.

Victoria, who helped fund the cow, identified Jane as a hard working woman and saw a lot of potential in her to succeed. A lot of women who are stuck in abusive relationships turn to prostitution to support their children, as their home life becomes intolerable, forcing them to leave and seek income, even it it means selling their body. At the end of the day, they need to put food down on the table for their family.

Victoria is trying to un-do this harmful cycle. Not only are families like Jane’s at risk in this cycle, the local economy is at risk. Victoria realizes that if Jane and the other women of Uganda can produce money for their families in a more productive and healthful manner, their lives will change, their families will strengthen, and their communities will prosper. Thus, if a very practical way, Victoria understands the importance of more women being empowered to take over the finances of their family and the value a cow can bring.

Victoria is trying to help empower women in the local community using ideas that don’t require a lot of education. Many of these women have not had the opportunity to go to school, but she does not see it as a set-back, but information for identifying the most effective strategies. Jane may not have had the opportunity or resources to learn to read or write, but she had the ability and motivation to learn.

Running a business, even a small farm, requires knowing the basics of record keeping, math and basic reading and writing, and Victoria is willing to teach them. So, in order to get a cow, Jane had to prove she was ready by being trained in cropping. While education is part of the process to the path of empowerment, it’s only one component. Motivation and drive are also essential, and Victoria’s program combines them all to empower women and strengthen local economies.

Jane’s next big dream? Owning land. Her small plot will cost her about $17,000 and she realizes that saving money is the first step to buying land. She hopes one day she can be given the freedom from the government to purchase land in her name.

Victoria believed in Jane and her potential, and there are countless other women whose lives can be empowered through the simple, but honorable, gift of a cow.  Jane is not just an inspiration, she is a prime example that violence does not have to occur when given the tools to become entrepreneurs. And without Victoria’s belief in her to succeed, Jane would still be in her abusive relationship. The time is now to be known more than just a woman.

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The Power of Sharing

Movies, video games, and political slogans often pitch criminal punishment and revenge as the way to achieving justice when we are confronted with violence, but in the very real human world vulnerability and inner peace may be far more important. This came home to me in a moment two years ago when I served as a mentor for Peacejam, a program that uses the words and deeds of Nobel Peace Laureates to inspire and promote social change.

Sometimes it takes one person, one story, to reconnect to humanity, and this begins our journey toward healing and rejoining our community. We need to be reminded that we are not alone in our struggles. And this is one story of a moment when I discovered the true meaning of peace and how important emotional healing is to combat violence. Sometimes, we just need to listen and find the peace within ourselves to heal.

I was a mentor for PeaceJam, an international education program, in which the initiative attempts to inspire middle and high school students to become committed leaders who can create a positive change in themselves and their communities. From bullying, to domestic violence, to rape, these issues are very real for students. Issues that grown adults struggle to talk about openly are embraced by these students. And for three days they come to talk about solutions.

What humbles me about this conference is the students, not it’s noble goals. They come from all different backgrounds, but for three days they leave all of their personal baggage at the door. For three days they become vulnerable, exposing secrets and fears, and open up in ways I never thought humanly possible. Most importantly, they leave the conference with a sense of peace in themselves and a commitment to tackle deep rooted social and personal issues. I love working with younger students  because they approach the world with an honesty about them that is authentic and genuine. They believe they can make a difference, and that if they continue to push, they will change not just their own life, but also the world.

In my mentor group last summer, I had an African American boy who was in the sixth grade. From the way he dressed to the way he spoke, I could tell he had been involved in gang activity, and he was not looking to become vulnerable during these three days. He had to remain a “strong” man. I could feel he did not want any part in the heavy discussions as he sat in the back with his hands crossed and stared blankly at the ground.  As a mentor, I felt a disconnect and it frustrated me. But I continued to include him rather than push him away. I could only hope that he would have the strength to use his voice, when, and if, an issue hit home.

One particular mentoring session, we were back in our assigned room discussing our thoughts on a previous talk by the Nobel Laureate. I opened the group discussion so they could share their personal struggles. We had been discussing lots of issues, but not personal stories. It was their time now.

I posed the following question: “Sometimes peace seems so distant from our life, almost like a dream. When there is so much suffering, how do we keep peace alive?”

Tears started to softly fall on a student’s face.

“Can you share with us what is making you cry?” I asked her.

She was ready to share her story, because she felt a sense of trust, and peace, among her peers.

“I’m scared to go home and face him again. It’s my uncle. He has been raping me since I was a little girl, but I have never told anyone.”

As a mentor I was prepared to deal with these stories, but for some students it was the first time they had heard someone share their own story.

And then something powerful happened.  The same young boy that never spoke a word, and never unfolded his arms, stood up and moved to a seat next to the young girl. He sat next to her and hugged her.

He then said, “I go home and my father beats me every single night. I have never told anyone this. It has made me so angry. But when you shared your story, it made me sad. I am sorry that has happened to you.”

Almost every student in the room began to cry. That young boy just wanted to connect with someone. I thought there was nothing anyone could do to change him. This young girl’s story allowed for two people to begin their search for peace, and maybe even other students in the room.

“Would you like to be my friend?” The boy asked her afterwards. Right then and there they exchanged phone numbers and for the rest of the conference they never left each other’s side.

Sometimes we just need someone to listen to us, to allow us to feel connected. I will never forget the way these two kids—young adults—held held each other in their arms. In that moment of vulnerability, a young girl was able to find peace within herself and a young man was empowered to make a difference.

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Hope for Healing

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Perhaps what is most horrifying to many is that the terror committed behind these closed doors was committed by someone who seemed so…ordinary. The three women who were recently rescued in Cleveland, prisoners in a home for over 10 years by a sexual predator, show the violence and tragedy that happens behind closed doors. Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus had been hidden away from society for over a decade. They were beaten, tortured, raped-completely and comprehensively stripped of their dignity, their humanity.

The terror happens behind these closed door happens by people who seem simply ordinary, maybe even uninteresting. Neighbors were shocked when they found out what had been hidden from them. These women were chained up, impregnated and treated as sex slaves for 10 long years.

The women were physically saved, but for years they never felt physically or emotionally safe. It will take them years to trust again. It will take them years to deal with their shame and guilt that their perpetrators allowed them to believe. They may never completely recover them their horror. They may never understand why they were chosen to be tortured and not loved.

Many people living regular lives might think that their rescue was an escape. While in a physical sense, they have escaped the everyday terror of their captor, they have not escaped the effects of emotional terror they experienced. In fact, their long-road to recovery has just begun.

These women will have years of healing ahead of them. They will struggle to reclaim their voices after years of silence. And not only were these three women affected, their families were affected. They thought their daughters and sisters  were dead, unclaimed, lost voices. Their silence brought them pain. They must heal all over again- this time with the survivors.

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The journey to healing will not be easy. Because these women had the courage, strength and the opportunity to escape, they will now embark on an emotional, but very powerful, journey of healing. The outside world is one they have not known for several years. It will be overwhelming to integrate into, as the fear is still too real. They may choice to reclaim their lives separately, and maybe even together, as survivors.

As these women move forward in their healing, so will other survivors of violence. If given the chance to give advice to the three survivors on their journey of healing, one human trafficking survivor leaves them with this message,

“Don’t lose that hope that kept you alive so you could be free. Someday you will have true freedom.”

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Reclaiming a Daughters Voice: The Ripple Effect

Violence does not only traumatize a survivor, a family must also learn to heal from the aftermath of terror. Today, Reclaiming Lost Voices begins a series where family members and friends of survivors will voice and share their
testimony of healing. RLV hopes these individual voices will bring peace and
inspiration to family members and friends on their own personal journey
towards reclaiming life.

This is one daughter’s voice.

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Grace 
Daughter of Sexual Abuse Survivor 

I am a fortunate woman.  I am not one of the one out of three women who are physically or sexually assaulted every day in our world.  I have only been in relationships where I am loved and respected.  Like so many other people, however, I know the pain of sexual abuse all too clearly, because I am the child of a survivor.

I recently finished reading Christa Parravani’s stunning debut novel Her: A Memoir.  The book documents the story of Christa’s relationship with her identical twin sister Cara, who after a vicious rape spirals downward into depression, drugs, and a fatal overdose.  Shortly after finishing the book, I came across an article by Parravani about sexual assault that spoke to me.  She talked about how Cara’s rape affected her entire family.

I was in the seventh grade when my mom didn’t come home from work.  She was always home after school, and my father never came home before 5:00.  Instead, after school, it was my dad who waited patiently for all three of us kids to get off the bus and explained that our mother was in the hospital.

“Is she sick?” we asked.

“In a way,” he answered.

“When will she come home?”  we pressed.

“I’m not sure yet,” he sighed.

For two weeks we lived a motherless new reality, trying to listen to my dad’s hushed phone conversations, trying to figure out what the worry in his eyes could mean.  He seemed lost as to how to explain all of this.

Thanksgiving came, and my dad announced my mom would visit, but just for the day.  We were tentatively excited, the time limit seemed confusing, why wasn’t she staying?  She arrived looking nervous, as if it were her first time meeting us.  A sizeable gauze pad covered her arm, which my younger sister immediately asked about.

My parents sat us down and explained my mom had burned herself.  Intentionally.  That she had been practicing this habit for some time and hiding it.

My mom came home a week later.  She relapsed and went back twice.  My early adolescence is clouded with memories of bandages, slurred words from too many pills, and broken promises of getting better.

My mom was saved by a therapist who refused to quit, a husband who knows how to love unconditionally, and a spirit that ultimately, is too beautiful to be broken.  Our family continues to heal with honesty, open dialogue, and more therapy.

My mom eventually explained that childhood sexual abuse and rape led to a breakdown.  She grew up in a time where you didn’t talk about that type of thing.  Her life became a web of secrets and finally, it became too much.  The pain was too much.  The shame was too much.  She lost her voice and herself to the secrets, and we almost lost her in the process.

Today, I advocate for survivors of sexual violence because I know how much their voices need to be heard.  Rape is like a giant stone thrown into our pond of a world: the ripples affect so many of us.  It is not a women’s issue, it is a human issue.  These women are much more than the statistic “one in three,”  they are our mothers, our friends, our sisters, our significant others, and the very women who make up the world.  We need these women desperately, so we must first listen to them.  Allow them to share free of shame and blame.

As Christa Parravani says,

“It is stunning how far the grief of rape travels- across
generations. Violent acts done to us affect our children not yet born.”

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One in three doesn’t take the ripple effect into consideration.

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Ronald’s Voice

Last summer I embarked to a country with many stories and voices. This is just one of them.

Meet Ronald. 

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He is 15 years old and likes to play football and volleyball. His favorite subject is social science and he aspires to become a politician one day.  He wants to help his people and create  policies to help the poor and disadvantaged, who often get overlooked. Himself included. But there’s more to Ronald than his warming smile, love of sports, and desire to become a politician.

Ronald is one of the greatest survivors from the LRA war in Northern Uganda (1986-2008).  He was rescued from a refugee camp, specifically the “Starch Factory” Internally Displaced Peoples Camp (IDPC) in Lira town with just days to live according to doctors.  Despite being 6 years old, his physical body resembled a 3 year old. He couldn’t walk. He could barely see because his eyes were swollen shut from being so severely malnourished. He was a walking skeleton.

Doctors explained to Victoria, the brave woman who rescued him, that the swelling was due to exposure to extreme cold during the nights. He was on the brink of dying. He did not have any clothes or blankets. He picked scraps of food off the ground to survive on his own.

Ronald received treatment for worms, malnutrition and severe anemia from Victoria even though no one expected him to survive.  He is now a vibrant young man. It was not just the physical treatment that kept him alive, but the ability for one person, Victoria, to take notice of him and give him more than just food. Victoria gave him what he needed most in the long-run: love.

She has seen Ronald grow into the bright young man he is today in the picture above, and she could not be more proud. Victoria founded her own organization, Bright Kids Uganda, to empower children, such as Ronald, to reclaim their lives and become leaders in their community. If she had to pick a hero of this 10-year project its Ronald Abongo—who fought his was back from the brink of death to become a man who will change this world with his story.

Posted in empowerment, human dignity, multiple personality disorder (MPD), murder, rape, Reclaiming Lost Voices, Uncategorized | Tagged Bright Kids Uganda, child soldiers, children, civil war, healing, hope, Joseph Kony, LRA, refugee, refugee camp, Ronald, Starch Factory, survival, Uganda, Victoria, violence, war | 2 Replies