Stacey Thompson, FUSION

When Stacey Thompson was 19-years-old, she was a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps. stationed in Okinawa. Her sergeant allegedly drugged her drink and sexually assaulted her before leaving her outside a nightclub. She reported the rape, but she was eventually discharged with no legal action taken against her accused attacker.

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Thompson, 35, has since become a vocal advocate for greater accountability and transparency in military rape trials: currently, they’re handled internally and considered within the jurisdiction of military commanders. The Department of Defense's 2014 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military found that 62% of women who reported sexual assaults faced retaliation. The Military Justice Improvement Act seeks to improve that situation by establishing an independent prosecutor still within the military but outside the chain of command who would handle sexual assault cases.

The measure's been introduced in the Senate and blocked twice before–this week, it made it back to the Senate only to be blocked again, this time even before it could come to a vote. Thompson now lives in Oceanside, Calif., and is an artist and caregiver for her disabled veteran husband under the Veterans Affairs caregiver program. She was featured this week on the PBS digital series Veterans Coming Home, and she spoke to us the day after the bill was blocked about her experience and why it matters to her.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When you first reported your assault in 1999, what responses did you get from the Marine Corps?

The process of reporting at that time was really different—there were no advocacy groups. This was in Okinawa. There wasn’t the same support, it’s sort of unimaginable when you think about the way that it is today. There are such things as closed reports—private ones—and you’re able to maintain some level of privacy about it. That was not the case in 1999. I reported it to a female sergeant at first and I was told by her, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it, go back to your barracks.’ I didn’t report back to work for about a week, I was told to pretty much stay in my barracks and by the time I went back nobody really knew what was going on.

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Then I get to work and the man who raped me is right there at my job. He’s just standing there. So I ran out. And I had to re-report it. After that I reported it to another male sergeant, and then it went to NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Services].

What happened next, after you reported it up the chain of command?

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A lot of people made a lot of promises of 'we’ll take care of it,' and what ended up happening immediately after was that I was transferred out of the unit that I was working in. Not the man who did it. I was transferred out.

And my level of privacy was…well there was no respect at the time for a survivor of sexual assault. There was no understanding of what I was going through. That’s what was devastating. It didn’t just affect me personally, it affected my job. And then while there was an open NCIS investigation for the crime of rape, the man who raped me was allowed to separate from the Marine Corps with an "Other Than Honorable" discharge.

I went to multiple different tiers of command, working my way higher and higher up the chain of command until finally I got so frustrated that nothing was being done. I was 19 years old, I was across the world from my parents who were living in New York, so I passed over the report that I gave to NCIS about the rape, I faxed it to my mom. And she brought it over to the congressman’s office, and we asked for outside help.

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Shortly after doing that I was separated with an "Other Than Honorable" discharge [Thompson's status was upgraded in January this year to a General Under Honorable discharge]. I was kicked out and I had no veterans benefits. And I was basically exited from the Marine Corps in the same way that the man that raped me was.

I had told them that I was drugged the night that I was raped, and I was brought in on retaliatory drug charges stemming from the night I was raped. I was told that I could either go up and face court martial, and they told me on paper I was facing up to life in prison.

Looking at this at 19 years old I was frightened. And then, given the opportunity to sign my papers and get out, I was willing to accept an Other Than Honorable discharge. I had no idea what that meant. All I knew at the time is that I was 19 and I could go home and make it stop. I didn’t understand the consequences of that or the enormity of what had just happened until I got home and by that time there was nobody to reach out to. There was nobody to call. Nobody talked about this. So I stayed quiet for 15 years.

What was the turning point for you to come out and start to talk about it in public and start to talk to a counselor?

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It’s funny because people always mention the black ring that my husband and I both wear on our trigger fingers. I was suicidal for a long time, I had PTSD, I had no idea what that was or how badly it affected me. Then I saw my husband go through three combat tours. When he finally came back from the third tour in Afghanistan in 2012 he just was not the same man. Up to that point I had gone 12 years without talking about being raped, without discussing what was going on. My decision was, and this is maybe one of the things I got from the Marine Corps, is this idea that you lead by example. I said to him, ‘I am going to get some help for what I went through. And hopefully if I can help me then I can help you.'

What was the first step for you?

The first step for me was really this idea of going to individual counseling. I made a decision that I just needed to talk to somebody to help me understand where things were at. I told them, look, I was raped in the military. I’m not ready to talk about it yet but I want to and I hope to, I just don’t know how.

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So then I went to the Lone Survivors Foundation, and I went on a retreat for Military Sexual Trauma (M.S.T.) survivors. It was an all-female thing, and I was sitting in a room with other women who had experienced similar things, with the exact same symptoms. For the first time I did not feel like I was alone. And that was the turning point of my recovery. That was where I discovered that, wow, this is something that’s going to be with me for a long time and it’s a matter of choice. You either choose to follow the path of misery and pain and you sit in silence and you don’t talk or you choose the path of recovery. It’s the choice you have to make every day to be better, to be healthy.

What advice would you have for anyone who’s a survivor of sexual assault in the military who maybe hasn’t come forward or is in the midst of their own battle right now?

First thing is, don’t give up. And the way in which a lot of other people give up is either drugs, alcohol, suicide. The second thing is, as much as you feel alone, you’re not. You’re not isolated in this.

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There’s a wonderful organization, Protect Our Defenders, who are incredibly supportive. There are organizations out there. The main thing is to ask. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK if you’re not OK if this happens to you. If you’re raped or sexually assaulted in the military someone needs to tell you it’s OK if you’re not OK. But you don’t give up, you continue to ask for help. You can recover, you can live a life in recovery. It will never go away.

It will never change what happened, but you can recover, and when you’re able to meet the next person–you can be a light for someone else. By sharing and coming together, you become a light for others. You become a hope and an inspiration.

Why is the Military Justice Improvement Act important to you?

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I think in 2014 I went and stood with Senator Gillibrand and 10 other senators. I gave a speech there in Washington, D.C. and I wholeheartedly believed after the speech that I delivered, after all the evidence we were able to show just how much passing that bill would make a difference, and being respectful to the military in terms of changing the process of reporting. I believed after I gave that speech that this was it. That I was going to be a part of history and that things were going to change. We had so many people backing it and believing that it was right. I was shocked when they filibustered it the first time, and shocked the second time.

Why do you think it keeps coming up against resistance?

Something does not add up. This is the third time the bill has been proposed and it’s been rejected. Sometimes I think to myself, wow, who needs to be personally affected by this to make that change? Haven’t enough people been through this, and shared their stories? It’s not easy. This is one of the most difficult things to talk about, something that so intimately and privately happened. To come out and to stand up and to tell the world, I survived this, and to ask that should this god forbid happen to another person, let’s have a better way of handling it, in the hope that we can begin to prevent it.

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But when people time after time after time say we have zero tolerance for this stuff, and yet years and years and years go by and they are continuing to tolerate this kind of behavior, it just makes you ask yourself: What are we waiting for?

What does recovery from the assault and your PTSD look like for you now in your day to day life?

Our whole family surfs. Everybody finds their own forms of therapy and for us surfing is a way to deal with fear, to deal with the adrenaline rush, to face it head on. You go out there, you catch a couple of waves, you don’t die…It’s a very good form of recreational therapy for our family, especially because we go out there and we just have fun and we face fear, but we overcome it.

Stacey Thompson

And I’m a glass mosaic artist, and it’s wonderful. I remember I had broken a mirror by accident after my grandmother passed away in 2011. I took the mirror and I put it on a canvas and that’s sort of how this began. I realized the bigger picture of it was that I took this reflection of self that had been shattered and made it something beautiful. I use my artwork for the Lone Survivor Foundation. I make pieces and I donate them, and then they raffle those off at auction and I put 100% of the money back into the organization.

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And then later this year I’ll have a book out, Beautifully Broken, which basically makes the analogy of breaking glass and working as a mosaic artist what I have learned about taking those shattered pieces of yourself and turning them into something completely different and something that people are in awe of. It’s been a really therapeutic way for me to see that all the brokenness that I’ve gone through, there’s a possibility there to make something beautiful. It’s still part of my life, the brokenness is still there, but there’s a way to beautiful within that.

For veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Lone Survivors Foundation and Protect Our Defenders offer counseling, legal help, and general support, regardless of a veteran's discharge status. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.