News: Victim … Survivor … Warrior
Story by Staff Sgt. Gaelen Lowers
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii – When she woke, fragments of broken memories flashed through her head as she tried to piece together the night before.
“I felt intense pain … that’s when I knew I had been raped.”
Staff Sgt. Mary Valdez describes her life since that realization as a journey from being a victim, to a survivor, to a warrior dedicated to doing whatever she can to make sure what happened to her doesn’t happen to others.
She demonstrates that dedication by telling her story, most recently as an invited panel member at the Department of the Army’s 6th Annual I A.M. Strong Sexual Harassment/Assault Prevention Summit at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 10-11.
During the summit, she interacted with more than 250 general officers, senior noncommissioned officers, and members of Congress, sharing her experience to raise awareness, promote prevention, and ultimately achieve a cultural change in the Army.
Valdez now serves as the 8th Theater Sustainment Command’s protocol noncommissioned in charge, but she credits her humble beginnings in San Antonio, Texas, with shaping who she is today. The middle child of six to a single mother, she said all of her siblings managed to avoid the typical traps in her neighborhood; in fact, three of them also joined the Army and are combat veterans.
“It’s pretty amazing to grow up in that level of poverty and not get involved in the negative stuff,” she said. “My mom was really proud of us.”
Mary always knew the Army would be her life. She said by the time she was 12 years old, she felt the calling to serve.
“My brother was deployed to desert storm. He would send me small trinkets from over there. Things like leaflets and wrappers with the native language on them. All I could do at 12 was tie yellow ribbon around trees and things around the neighborhood, and showing off all the things he sent to me for show and tell at school.”
Three days after her 19th birthday, she enlisted. After eight years in the Reserves, another calling struck her, to go active duty and deploy.
“I was working as a police officer at the time, and I heard all my brothers and sisters talking about their war experience. Being a police officer, I had similar experiences, but there was that connection that I was missing to share my stories. So I went to the recruiter and told him that I wanted to go active duty and to send me to the unit that was about to deploy. Sure enough, within six months, I was heading to Iraq.”
The first night there, as she lay down to sleep, she experienced her first mortar attack.
“As soon as I laid my head down, I heard a loud boom. I woke and sat straight up in bed. That was my, ‘Welcome to Iraq.’
Before you deploy, you have that feeling that you are going to get over there and do what needs to be done and serve your country, but when you’re finally there and bombs are dropping around you, you’re like, ‘Whoa, this is reality.’”
Following a 15-month deployment, she served three years as an Army recruiter.
If you know anything about recruiting, you really have no social life. You’re always trying to get someone in the Army. So when I finally got to my new unit, the pressure of trying to put someone in the Army was gone. I was so happy to be a soldier again, to get up and go to formations and actually do PT with a unit.”
As a single soldier new to Hawaii, her NCO suggested she attend a unit sponsored retreat.
“It’s like a free, mini-vacation,” she said. “There were three females in my unit that were part of my group, none of who I had ever met before. But this was my opportunity to meet new people and I did! I made friends with them quickly. There was also another Soldier who didn’t have a group so we invited him to our table.”
When the girls invited her to a luau, she didn’t want to exclude him, so she texted him an invite. Afterward, they headed to downtown Honolulu. He was only 19 years old so he didn’t drink, but the rest did. Mary was ready to leave early, so he offered to see her back to the hotel.
“I remember going into the elevator and getting out on the floor. He kept trying to help me but I didn’t want anyone touching me so I told him that I got it. I remember opening my door with my key card, seeing my bed and just flopping down, face forward, lights out. I didn’t know he followed in behind me.”
With tears rolling down her face, she remembered, “The pain was unreal. I don’t know if it was the alcohol, something was put in my drink or something given to me while I was asleep, but I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t even scream. I didn’t have the power to push him off me. All I could do was move my head to try to avoid his.”
When she regained consciousness she realized she had been sexually assaulted.
She felt disgusting. She felt dirty. She felt a thousand showers wouldn’t wash away what she was feeling. After a day of testing at the hospital, she was given two options: file a restricted or unrestricted report, a choice that could potentially make her experience public.
At the time, she thought, “The guy was only 19, and I didn’t want to ruin his life, but he just ruined mine, with no thought to it.”
Mary chose the unrestricted route.
The next few months were a rollercoaster of reports, emotions, meetings, and trials. She felt suicidal and homicidal at the same time. She would burst into tears randomly, but when Mary went to the Army Criminal Investigation Command to give her account, they told her that he’d confessed.
“I felt a weight lift from my shoulders!” she said feeling she could finally get on with her life.
The next month she deployed to Afghanistan. The high tempo helped her forget, but she was required to report back to Hawaii for the trial.
“I had to go up on the stand, and that was the hardest day of my life. I don’t think I have ever cried so hard before. Not even at a funeral. I don’t know; it’s like I lost a piece of me.”
At the retreat, the Soldiers were in civilian clothes, but up on the stand, they wore their duty uniform and ranks were made apparent.
Everything appeared to be on her side; DNA evidence, a confession. But he was acquitted of all charges.
“They see this,” Mary said pointing to her rank. “They see [staff sergeant.] They see someone who should’ve known better. I may have put myself in a situation, but I wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t invite him into my room.
“When they said acquitted, the Soldiers from my rear detachment started high fiving him. I just had to get out of there. My forward unit wanted me to fly back the next day, but there was no way.”
She was done with the Army, and the flood of mixed emotions hit her again.
“I went back to when I was 12 years old, and thought so highly of the Army. I felt betrayed, slapped in the face. I remember thinking to myself; I will never be able to put on that uniform again. But the passion and the love I have for the Army was much greater. It hurt really bad to think that.”
A senior NCO told Mary she could hate the Army, get out and never look back, but to first think about all the years she’d dedicated to it and to ask herself if she wanted to throw it all away.
But she also gave Mary an alternative: new unit, new base … a new start.
“I think that is what I was waiting for, what I was waiting to hear. I saw hope. I thought, ‘When can I put my uniform back on?’”
She said the support she felt from her new unit helped her move forward.
“My new command sergeant major asked me, “What can I do for you?” and I told him that I wanted to help other people who have been through what I’ve been through. Six months later I was training to become a SHARP Victim Advocate.”
It was that new beginning she’d longed for, the chance to be a living example of personal courage each and every time she shares both her pain and hope for change.
“Once I started talking and helping others, I felt that switch in me almost immediately. I needed to get my story out there, and I needed to tell it at the highest levels.”
In February she was also selected to represent the Army during the Department of Defense Survivor’s Summit, where she met one-on-one with the director of the DoD Sexual Assault and Response Office.
“I can’t believe I’m actually getting the opportunity,” she said, through more tears. “It’s very bitter sweet to me. This is like my justice.”