Okinawa, Japan (2008).
A petite, 14 year-old Japanese girl and her two best friends walk to the ice cream shop on the way home from football (soccer) practice after school. Her thoughts are on today’s homework assignment – a long one, as always from her strict teachers. She and her friends choose chocolate ice cream in waffle cones. With sprinkles. Always with sprinkles. Her thoughts turn to the cute guy in her algebra class that she finally had the courage to smile at this morning. She and her friends continue walking.
One of the other girls nudges her. Look, there’s the cute, older American again. He seems really nice. He’s tall, but not too tall. He’s big, but not too big. He always has a smile for her, and seems to like to get ice cream on Wednesday evenings just like they do. They’ve seen him here for several weeks now. He’s harmless. She turns back to her friends and her ice cream. It’s getting late. The road home is long and the sun set some time ago. She tells them goodbye and heads towards her house.
After a few minutes, a motorbike pulls up beside her. It’s the handsome American! He says he likes her new, pretty pants. She is shyly thrilled that someone as handsome as he even noticed her! He’s headed in the same direction and says he can drop her off at her house on his way home. She looks him in the eyes and sees only kindness. Call me Ty, he says, it’s short for Tyrone. She climbs on the back of the bike, careful to keep her backpack from falling off, and places her arms around Ty’s waist.
When he turns down an unfamiliar road, she begins to get nervous – an icky feeling in the pit of her stomach. He reassures her that he just needs to grab something at his own house before taking her home. They arrive at a small, blue, single-story house in a remote community. None of the other houses have lights on, and he urges her to go inside – it’ll only take a minute. Once inside, however, he closes the door behind her, and presses her against the wall. His hands are everywhere and he tries to kiss her. Terrified, she finds a strength she didn’t know she had and pushes past him. She makes it to the door and runs down the dark street. Sobbing, she stumbles in the dark.
He follows her in a van and promises to take her home if she will just stop crying. He’s afraid of waking the neighbors. Its well past 10pm and there are noise restrictions in the neighborhood. She’s ashamed and shaking all at once. He kneels down and wraps his arms around her. You’re safe, he says. That was a mistake and it won’t happen again, he assures her. After an eternity, she stops shaking and agrees to the ride home. The motorbike is nearly out of gas, he says. She vaguely notices that the van doesn’t have rear or side windows, as she climbs into the back seat. The entire back row is missing and there are a couple of blankets tossed against the side of the van.
Slipping her cell phone quietly out of her pocket, she makes a quick phone call while the American returns to his house to grab a few items. The first number that pops up is her brother’s best friend. He answers on the third ring. Please help me, she whispers, glancing nervously at the American’s front door. She tells him where she thinks she is and says she’s scared. Then the American strides out of his house and she quickly tucks the phone back into her pocket as he climbs into the driver’s seat. They head down the road. Her phone rings loudly, startling Ty. He roughly reaches back and wrestles the phone from her pocket and turns it off before tossing it out the window. You don’t need that, he says. Please take me home, she cries.
Without a word, Ty drives for an eternity, turning down another dark, deserted street. He parks the van along the side of the road, hidden behind a few trees. Her heart started pounding twenty minutes ago. She starts sweating and pulling at the door handle. The doors are locked. Ty climbs into the back seat and pushes her into he back of the van. He presses his hand down, inside her pretty new pants……
… Police find the pretty, 14 year-old girl sitting on the curb in the next town over.i She is pale, shaking and hugs her knees to her chest. Her clothing is disheveled, and her eyes are hollow. She cannot even speak her own name…..
… Okinawa police arrest Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Tyrone Hadnott for the rape of a 14 year old Japanese girl. The charges are dropped because she withdraws her accusation – she brought shame to her family. The Marine Corps prosecutes the Staff Sergeant for sexual assault, and he receives a 4-year sentence – the rape, however, cannot be proven without a victim willing to testify….ii,iii
NOTE: The story above is primarily based on the facts reported by several news sources, both Japanese and American (including CNN) at the time of the charges. A few details are assumed in order to complete the story. See END NOTES for three supporting news articles.
Al Taqaddum, Iraq (2005).
Let’s rewind three years. It is now 2005. My name is 1stLt Bethany Lapointe, and I was on the U.S. air base of Al Taqaddum, Iraq during my first deployment as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. I was 24 years old, 114 lbs and 5’6” tall. I’m a motor transport platoon commander. I led convoys through Iraq during that deployment. We lost a Marine to a roadside bomb and several Marines to vehicle rollovers as a result of roadside bombs. I experienced great loss and overcame a great many of my personal fears: the fear of failure – failing to lead my Marines safely. The fear of me or them not making it home. The fear of indirect fire on our base (enemy bombs lobbed from a far distance into our camp). The fear of roadside bombs. The fear of never seeing my parents again. I overcame so many fears on that first deployment. Surely that means I was brave?
I now tell my children that being brave is doing something courageous even when you are very, terribly afraid. I have a dark secret about that deployment. I was harassed and sexually assaulted. His name is Staff Sergeant Tyrone Hadnott. He worked in our communications section, and as far as military rank goes, he is junior to me.
I remember two different situations. In the middle of a sand-storm – just as it was starting – I returned from a run around the inside of our camp, and was wearing the Marine Corps issued tiny green running shorts and green t-shirt. Tucked in, as per regulations. I headed towards the female showers and stopped short when SSgt Hadnott called out to me. I can still hear his voice inside my head.
“Hey, you look some fine! I’d be all about some of that if you were enlisted. I’d be all over you!”
Shocked, I just looked at him and mumble something like – uh, thanks. But he doesn’t stop there. He comes closer and, still stunned, I don’t move away.
“What flavor are you into: chocolate or vanilla? I’ll bet you’re a chocolate girl. I know I like vanilla.”
He leers. He’s very bold and is completely undeterred by the fact that I outrank him. I feel very afraid and out of my element. He’s taller than me, but not too tall. He’s a lot bigger, but not the biggest Marine out there. What strikes me is that he is so confident.
He’s a man of color and I’m very, very white. Stuttering, I tell him I’m not interested, and I dash to the safety of the showers.
I think I’m over-reacting. Did I mis-interpret that verbal exchange? It made me incredibly uncomfortable, but he didn’t really say anything overt, did he? He didn’t even touch me. Am I being too sensitive? Maybe it was just a compliment? Should I say anything to anyone? What would I even say? I think I would sound like an idiot. The new girl, the young one, is made uncomfortable because a guy was talking about ice cream flavors that I interpret to be asking me if I am into black guys or white guys. That sounds ridiculous. I decide not to say anything. There’s nothing to say, afterall. If I can’t handle my own business and be respected on my own merit, then I will have failed as an officer. Yes, that’s the way to deal with this. Not going to say a word. Just going to behave as though nothing happened. Nothing did happen…
…But something did happen again. As the motor transport platoon commander, my office was in an old concrete bunker that the Marine Corps converted into work spaces. The bunkers are huge and we can fit several large military trucks inside, as well as office spaces. We use some bunkers for maintenance bays, and other bunkers and old buildings for office spaces. Our unit was tasked to upgrade some of the electrical and communications equipment in the office spaces.
I often worked late into the evening, even after my senior enlisted leaders went back tot heir tents for the night. Honestly, there wasn’t much to do after hours besides work out in the concrete bunker that we had converted into a gym, to watch pirated movies, or to send emails home to the parents. I don’t remember a whole lot from that night, but I remember that there were some other Marines in the bunker working on wiring something. I was watching a movie at my desk. The busy noise from the other Marines started to wind down and everyone must have called it quits for the night.
It was getting late, and I needed to get to bed. I liked to go running early in the mornings with a group of other officers (a deliberate decision after the sand-storm incident – there’s safety in numbers). I closed my laptop and reached over to grab my backpack when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I could feel someone else in the room. My heart pounded in my chest. My pistol was still on the chair instead of in my holster – it can get uncomfortable. It wouldn’t do me any good right now, anyways, because we don’t walk around with it loaded all the time. My magazines are still in their pouches on my drop holster attached to my leg. Fuck.
I spin around only to have a hand slap over my mouth stifling whatever words I thought I was going to say. A thick arm wraps around me, crushing both my arms against my body, and I’m pressed up against the wall. The door is kicked closed and it echoes in the empty bunker.
“I told you I’d be all about that if I had the chance. Let’s see what you really taste like.”
Staff Sergeant Hadnott took his hand off my mouth and crushed it with his lips. It hurt. His body was crushing mine. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move my arms. I kicked but it didn’t do any good. He kept kissing me and his free hand roamed my body. I felt so hot with fear and terror. Suddenly he let go and backed off. I just stood there, stunned. Shocked. Like an idiot. He left as quickly as he came. I didn’t even yell out. I crumpled to the floor, my whole body shaking.
I don’t remember what happened the rest of that night. I don’t recall how I got back to my room. I don’t think I said anything to my roommate. The next day, I went to the bunker to work as usual. My Marine were busily doing their jobs. Everything was the same as it had always been. Only it wasn’t.
I told the Motor Transport Chief (my right-hand man), Gunnery Sergeant Nero, that the Staff Sergeant had said something inappropriate to me. I didn’t tell him about the night in the bunker. GySgt Nero was furious, and he told me that he and the other Staff Non-Comissioned Officers would handle it. I don’t know what they did or said. SSgt Hadnott never spoke to me again, and we didn’t cross paths.
Nothing was ever formally reported or done. I did not bring it up in any official capacity or through formal channels. What would I even say? I hadn’t reported the inappropriate things he said to me. I was afraid that the other officers would think that I led him on because I didn’t stop it. I was afraid of what they would think. I was afraid that no one would believe me. I wasn’t even really physically hurt. I wasn’t raped. It was just a kiss, right? I was just a young girl that everyone already probably thought was a flirt. I wanted to be taken seriously as an officer, as a Marine. I didn’t want to be known as the girl who cried assault, especially on a deployment. I was afraid of it all.
My unit returned to Camp Pendleton, CA from Iraq early in 2006. SSgt Hadnott got orders to Okinawa, Japan and left. I hid my secret well. I tucked it deep into my heart and so deep in my memory that its sometimes easy to forget about.
I wanted to forget it. I got busy and did forget it. Until news reports started pouring out of Okinawa, Japan in early 2008. My fears turned into horror and shame when I realized that I could have prevented the terrible things that the 14 year-old little girl faced. If only I had been brave enough to say something in 2005 when SSgt Hadnott was inappropriate. If only I had reported him to the authorities when he held me and forced his hands and lips on me. Maybe he would have been disciplined or reprimanded in 2006. Maybe it would have led to a dishonorable discharge from the military. Maybe he would never have been sent to Japan to meet that little girl. If only I had been brave enough.
Spokane Valley, Washington (2019).
Today, I am Major Bethany Peterson. Over the past decade, I have spoken at sexual assault prevention classes as part of annual Marine Corps training. I tell my story to large rooms full of male and female Marines of all ranks. Young women need to know that it’s okay to speak up. They ARE brave enough. They are courageous enough. Maybe I could have stopped that Staff Sergeant if I had just said something. Maybe any one of us could. Usually, the men in the room hang on to every word that I say. The women in the room have trouble looking me in the eye, and I know it is because most of them recall at least one situation where they didn’t say anything because they were afraid.
In 2010, I married a simply amazing man and we have three ridiculously amazing kids: two rambunctious, little boys (2 and 5), and a beautiful, spunky, 4 year-old little girl. Kaleigh is a little spitfire of a girl. She is equal parts pink, sparkly unicorn princess and warrior/fighter heroine who wrestles her brothers and loves laser-tag.
Kaleigh’s biggest worry in her little world is whether or not she will get a lollipop if she finishes all her dinner. When and how should I teach her that the world isn’t a fair place?
She is so beautiful and so gentle and kind. How do I teach her true strength? How do I teach her the truth about bravery?
Kaleigh doesn’t always want to hug family members goodbye when we leave. How and when do I teach her to be true to her own boundaries. How do I teach her that its okay to expect people to respect her boundaries on her body? In a world where little girls are told to be nice, and children are expected to be kind, how do we teach them when to stop being nice and to start saying no?
How do I protect her from the rough reality that other people aren’t always nice? The answer is that I shouldn’t. Instead, I need to show her how to stand up for herself by standing up for myself. we need to allow her to say no – especially when it comes to her body – and to respect her decisions. Anything less is training her to disregard her instincts and the little hairs on the back of her neck that quietly warn her that something doesn’t feel quite right. I don’t want to train my daughter to ignore her instincts because those instincts may protect or save her some day. I want her to trust those instincts. I want her to be brave enough to be pissed if someone crosses her boundaries and to demand nothing less than respect for her body and her person.
I hate the thought that my daughter may be assaulted one day because a man with a history of increasingly predatory behavior was never reported along the way because the other women he was in appropriate with were too afraid to say anything. Maybe they were afraid of being laughed at or called too sensitive. Maybe they were afraid they weren’t being nice enough. When we don’t say anything, I believe that true predators become more bold, taking their actions to the next level.
I’m no longer afraid. My tolerance for assholery has shrunk to zero now that I am 38 years old. The first step, for me, was to speak out and tell my story to other Marines. Then, the next time a drunk guy double-fisted my rear end in a bar as I was ordering drinks for my husband and myself, I flipped him around (6’2” easily), grabbed his shirt collar, pulled him down to my face and told him off… much to the laughing amusement of my husband who proudly watched me take care of business. The bouncer ensured the guy didn’t return.
Not every scenario is so dramatic. Sometimes, it is more subtle. When we speak up and speak out, we let others know what is and is not acceptable behavior. Once, I had to tell some of my peers (male Captains) that it was not okay to talk about sexual positions and yellow rain in the middle of an auditorium with junior male and female Marines finding their seats waiting for training class to start. Seriously?! I wasn’t a bitch. I was tactful and matter-of-fact. I handled it in a way that did not embarrass anyone, and we all talked about more appropriate things the rest of the afternoon. In fact, I cannot recall hearing them speak like that ever again. We set the bar, ladies, and hold others to it. The question is, are we setting it high, or low?
Standing up for yourself is empowering and exhilarating. And we can do it with both class and sass. Ladies, we ARE brave enough. We ARE strong enough. We ARE heroes. We ARE protectors of our children and our families. I promise you that with each brave step you take, the next step is easier and easier. My responsibility is to teach my daughter and my sons that they ARE brave enough, and I will take each step with them until they are old enough to step out on their own. Be brave.