By Skytina Felder-Jones
8th Fighter Wing
At the age of four I became a guilt-riddled, withdrawn and a painfully shy child. I was frightened of the world outside of my mother and was petrified by almost all men.
From that time until the age of 19, my self-esteem and self-worth told me I was damaged, unlovable and had nothing of value to say, so I kept my mouth shut most of the time.
Spiritual growth, counseling and a strong network of family and friends helped me flourish. I found my voice, my worth and developed a strong locus of internal control. I was able to achieve my academic and professional aspirations.
I was finally more than that helpless little girl. My faith in humanity had been restored — and then it happened. He came into my life and threatened to undo the lifetime of healing and restoration that seemed as if it only just begun.
No, he was not a stranger. He was my tormentor, my boogeyman: a field grade officer who happened to be my boss. “We are on the same team,” I thought to myself. We have the same goals. “Why can’t you see me as a professional vice something for your own sexual gratification? This cannot be happening to me.”
Most cases of sexual harassment and assault happen subtly. There is a journey, a refined process that offenders and perpetrators take potential targets through. My situation was not any different.
It began with intrusion.
My offender initiated this process with sexual remarks, inappropriate comments and at one point grabbed my arm and instructed to me to serve him dinner at a command Christmas party. I managed to squeak something barely audible as I looked around to see if anyone noticed and would come to my aid. In retrospect, I believe we were all flabbergasted and did not know what to do.
I was embarrassed and frustrated that I did not stand up for myself. At that moment, I was 4-years-old all over again and could not find my voice. My offender, on the other hand, was overtly testing my boundaries to see what he could get away with. My lack of response emboldened him.
As time went by, my supervisor’s behavior toward me became more blatant and frequent. I began to dismiss what was happening. I would tell myself he doesn’t mean anything by it. I became convinced if I ignored the behavior, he would get the picture that I was not interested and his advances were unwanted.
I eventually came to accept he was not going to stop and I would continue to be uncomfortable; just another unpleasant part of life. But, I was strong enough to deal with it, so I thought. We were at the second phase in the process: desensitization.
So now we are four months into incessant and unwanted sexual advances. I was summoned several times to his office under the guise of a work-related task, only to have himself and his male counterparts look me over, ask personal questions and make sexual comments as I exited the room.
I was put on display. It was horribly degrading. The beginning of the end of this hell started when my boss squeezed my upper thigh under the table at a command function in a crowded room.
I was ashamed, hurt and embarrassed. I left the event and went to the equal opportunity office, because I knew I had to do something. I told them of my ordeal and they were more than willing to help me. I asked to be given time to think about what course of action to take. I was leaving for a five-week temporary duty assignment the next day.
I thought I would have a reprieve from the harassment and the potential for another assault. I was wrong. My offender sent emails during my TDY. He called me and basically told me when I returned, it was time to go to the next level and it was no longer an option.
I did not sleep that night. I was scared. I returned to work after my TDY and avoided my supervisor/offender at all costs. I ignored his phone calls. I would peak out my door before I left my office to ensure I did not bump into him.
I would correspond with him by email only. Finally, I was summoned to his office and was asked why I was avoiding him. He informed me I needed to make it a point to see him every day.
The following day I was summoned into his office, again, to be put on display. As I greeted the other male field grade officer present, he openly chided me and I was instructed not to speak to another man. According to him, I was his property.
No longer was I a highly educated professional or valued member of the team. I was there solely for my offender’s benefit. I felt less than human, weak and powerless. I was no longer a 34-year-old capable and confident woman. I had transformed completely into that helpless girl from my childhood.
Not only did my offender interrupt my peace at work, but he invaded my dreams and my thoughts and pervaded every aspect of my life. I became paralyzed and consumed by fear. The quid pro quo in the form of threats relevant to my performance appraisals and job kept me in a constant state of flux. I was a prisoner in my office and in my home.
I was living the hell many of my previous clients, also former victims of violence had described to me time and time again. I was now reliving which propelled me to join the Navy in hopes of escaping my past.
The final breaking point came when my offender began to actively take steps to eliminate my job. Upon my return from my TDY, I found out he had withheld paperwork to extend my job. The organization’s budget personnel hounded him for seven months to submit the paperwork.
Wittingly, the harassment began during the same timeframe. I decided I was no longer going to be a silent victim. I went to the director of our section and notified him of what was going on. I informed him I intended to file a report with the EO office.
The investigation began that day. Asserting the protections that are guaranteed to every military and civilian personnel is not an easy process. During the investigative process, I felt as though I was laid bare and the entire world could see my fear, my shame, my cowardice and my trauma.
I had to tell every sordid detail of my ordeal over and over. It was such an intrusive but necessary process. The investigation completely polarized our office. I was ostracized by people whom I valued and trusted. The morale and the foundation of our once solid team had was decimated. We never recovered. I was blamed by some and heralded as a heroine by others.
I was so afraid no one would believe me. After a 45-day investigation, the charges in my complaint were substantiated and I was relieved, but I did not feel vindicated. My offender’s supporters impugned my character, refused to cooperate with me regarding work-related tasks and completely shunned me. I did find solace in the fact my offender would no longer be able to prey upon the two other women who came forward during my case.
In the end, I was battered and bruised. I had displaced anger and found it difficult to trust any leader. I was angry at myself. The nightmares continued and the world was no longer a safe place for me. I did seek help, but I had gone so far within, it was difficult for anybody to reach me.
I knew I allowed him to change who I was. I was no longer the sweet, jovial and passionate woman I always was. I became a defensive, aggressive and mean woman — a woman I did not recognize.
A year later I saw him as I was leaving a doctor’s appointment and lowered my eyes and head. The voice I was regaining rose up and said, “You have nothing to be ashamed of.” I looked my offender in his eyes until he lowered his head and eyes. He did the walk of shame that day.
At that moment, I was released from the burden of trauma I was carrying around with me daily. I no longer have nightmares and am learning to trust my leaders and people in general again. I smile and laugh daily. That mean girl is gone for good.
The help of the chaplaincy, my spiritual support, victim advocates and mental health provided the way for my peace and love of life again. Not only did they validate my reality, but they brought stability and safety into my world that was turned upside down.
Therapeutic work in counseling provided for healing and restoration. I highly encouraged all victims to seek help. Strength and resilience rests upon our ability to reach out to others in our time of need. Shame belongs solely to the perpetrator.
As I mentioned earlier, there are three phases in the process of sexual harassment and assault. I spoke of intrusion and desensitization: the last phase is isolation. Isolation is the goal of every perpetrator in order to accomplish a full-fledge sexual assault. I am eternally grateful my ordeal never led to isolation.
I am empowered because of knowledge. I am empowered because I am no longer silent. I am no longer a victim.
PHOTO: Skytina Felder-Jones poses for a photo to communicate her stance on sexual assault Mar. 12, 2014, at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. Felder-Jones shared her experience with others so they are aware of their options and that there is life after an assault. Felder-Jones is an 8th Fighter Wing Resilience Program specialist and facilitator. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Senior Airman Armando A. Schwier-Morales/Released)