Sexual assault survivor: ‘You are not alone’

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany (AFNS) --  I remember the day like it was yesterday. My heartbeat echoed in my head as I attempted to dry my sweaty hands on my jeans. I was 21 years old, sitting in a Korean court room, waiting to be questioned by prosecutors. How I ended up there was unreal. Just a few months earlier I was happy; I had a loving husband, amazing friends and arguably the greatest job in the Air Force, but the color in my world had been stolen.

This is my story of how I was sexually assaulted.

After a year at my first duty station, I wanted to further my career so I volunteered for a short tour to Korea. I soon received an assignment to Osan Air Base, South Korea, as an American Forces Network broadcaster. It would be difficult, I knew, because my husband was unable to join me, but we agreed it was a great opportunity.

Upon arriving in Korea, I quickly learned the assignment was no easy task. The days were long and work never seemed to stop. It wasn't until half way through my tour that I finally made time to volunteer off-base with a fellow coworker. We spent the day helping members in the local community practice their English-speaking skills. After lunch, my coworker and I said our good-byes to the Koreans and headed back to base.

The taxi dropped us off at the street right in front of the base. I paid the driver, thanked him and waved good-bye to my buddy as he left to play pool off base.

Walking toward base, I noticed a button on my coat was loose, so I stopped at a tailor shop a few feet from the gate entrance. I walked in, greeted the worker with "Annyeonghaseyo," and asked if he could fix my button. He nodded and took the coat from me. When he finished, I put it on and asked how much. He kept saying no charge and proceeded to get closer to me. The next few minutes became dark. He proceeded to take advantage of me, and I just froze. I didn't know what to do; I was in shock. I couldn't believe what was happening. Once I snapped to, I ran as fast as I could toward base. I knew what had just happened to me wasn't right, and my mind and body didn't want to believe it. It felt like my brain kept telling me, there's no way it could have happened.

But it did.

As I sat in my room, replaying the events in my head, I heard the recognizable beeping sound coming from my computer. It was my husband calling me via Skype. I answered, and realizing something was bothering me, he asked what was wrong. Hesitating, I slowly began to tell him what happened that day. I could see the anger and frustration in his eyes; he wanted so badly to hug and kiss me and tell me everything was going to be all right, but he couldn't.

The following day, I took his advice and talked to my supervisor about the events that occurred. While comforting me, she asked what I wanted to do and explained my options. We walked to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator's office and the lieutenant there escorted me to the (Air Force) Office of Special Investigations, where they took my statement. The OSI agents were very understanding and explained that because this was a Korean national, I would have to file a report with the Korean National Police. I thought it would end there, but that was only the beginning.

The SARC informed me this would be a long procedure and recommended I use the Air Force's new Special Victims Council Program to help me through the process; I agreed.

A few weeks later, my first sergeant called to tell me that, according to Korean law, anytime a person files a sexual assault, both parties must present their account of the actions in front of a judge. "You will have to face him if you want to keep going with this," he said.

I echoed softly, "Face him?" This was the last thing I wanted.

He got quiet and then told me, "Hey, I don't agree with this system. You should never have to see him again. I will support whatever decision you make, but just know our OSI translator says most women end up retracting their statements because they're afraid of facing their assailant."

After hearing that, I knew I had to do what was right.

Soon, an Air Force captain from the SVC contacted me. As a lawyer, he would help me through any legal issues and be available for support.

Finally, the day arrived when I would have to face the man who assaulted me. At the Korean National Police Station, we would argue the truth over that day's events.

My first sergeant and commander drove in from Seoul to accompany me. Before leaving the office, my commander talked to me. He asked me how I was doing and if I was ready. But I will never forget what he told me next, "I have to tell you that I really admire what you're doing. It takes a lot of guts, so let's go out and [seek justice for what has happened to you]."

We pulled up to the police station and an officer escorted us into a room. The door opened and I saw my assailant. Next to him was an empty chair where the officer signaled me to sit. Shaking, I managed to take my seat at which time my assailant starts yelling. There was no need for translation; my interpreter told me he was accusing me of lying and trying to ruin his marriage.

I left the room momentarily to try and compose myself. I took a deep breath and looked in the mirror. I had been so stressed for the past two months and it reflected in my physical appearance. My skin had broken out from my face all the way down to my chest. But I knew in my heart what happened that day; I wasn't a liar. I closed my eyes and prayed to God for strength.

I made my way back into the room. I looked around at all the people who came out to support me -- my commander, first sergeant, station manager and OSI translator and, for the first time in a long time, I felt safe. I remained as calm as I could and answered the questions asked of me, despite my offender being a few inches away and constantly yelling at me and my interpreter.

This was, by far, the hardest thing I've had to face in my life.

Weeks went by before we heard anything. The judge decided to take my case to court. I would have to testify again, except this time no one was allowed in the court room with me.

My special victim's counselor walked me to the door of the court room. Then a Korean officer took me in and motioned me to sit in a chair that had been placed in the middle of the room. I looked around; no one sat in the pews and there was no jury -- just a judge, an interpreter and a transcriber. They all stared as the prosecutor approached me. I was the victim, yet somehow, the room, the glares, the questions, all made me feel as if I was the offender.

A month later, I was told the judge had found my assailant guilty. It was a huge relief, not only for me, but for others as well. I learned I wasn't alone; many others on base came forth and said they, too, had experienced harassment from this man. The Air Force put his shop off-limits, helping to ensure others wouldn't fall victim to the same crimes.

Throughout the four-month ordeal, my Air Force and Army family stood by my side. My special victim counselor helped me through every step of the legal process, despite being stationed in Japan. To this day, he continues to check up on me from time to time. OSI volunteered an agent familiar with Korean law to translate and advise my counselor and me on the next step. Everyone in my chain of command, my fellow Airmen and Soldiers all the way up to the Pentagon, showed sincere and personal support.

Today, with the love and support of my family and friends, my wound is slowly healing. I hope that, in sharing my story, people may find comfort in knowing that no matter where you're serving, despite being away from everything you know, you are not alone.