One of the most valuable benefits of putting political action into the form of nonviolent encampments is that we learn each other's stories as we occupy our public parks and squares. Here's a story from the October2011 occupation in Freedom Plaza, Washington, D.C. There are many more, and we'd like to hear yours when you join us.
Aristine Maharry is 29 years old and now lives in Freedom Plaza. She grew up in a very military family, with members of her family having participated in every major U.S. war going back to the war for independence, and with members of every generation having joined the military.
Maharry's family did not encourage her to aspire to a military career, but -- as in many such stories I've heard -- actions spoke more loudly than words. Maharry was proud of her father's military experience. She hoped from a very young age to join the U.S. Army. She grew up playing at army with her half-brothers. They would flip the couch on its side and toss pretend grenades. She loved the board game Risk. The biggest holiday in Aristine's family was the Fourth of July. She doesn't say she bled red white and blue. She says she bled green, Army green. She wanted to serve her country and other people. She was willing to die for her country. She was proud of her country.
Aristine was a good student and a good athlete. At age 7 she tested with an IQ of 185. She was placed in gifted and talented classes in all of the many public schools she attended. She got good grades, ran track, and was president of the Future Business Leaders of America at West Potomac High School in Northern Virginia, where at 16 she dual enrolled at George Mason University. She graduated from high school at 18 in the year 2000, was married the next January and pregnant in February.
Aristine knew that the military would be reluctant to enlist a mother of a child under 1 year of age. She hoped to take part in the Green to Gold program, enlisting and eventually becoming an officer. Her own father had dropped out of college to enlist and fight in Vietnam. She admired that history. However, when her first son was nine months old, Aristine became pregnant again. She headed to the recruiter's office when her second son turned one in May 2004. She had a family and a good job in management training new personnel in the pharmacy department of Liberty Medical Supply in Florida. But recruiters' job is to recruit, and Maharry didn't require any persuading.
She arranged to train at the same camp her father had trained at, Fort Leonardwood in Missouri. She headed there in December 2004, leaving behind a husband and two little boys for the holidays. Aristine says it was a very sad time for her, very difficult, and also very cold in Missouri. But, she thought to herself: "All the other soldiers have families too. They do it. I'm not different. I can serve too. I want to do my part as an American." She signed up to become a combat medic, hoping to care for injured soldiers.
The first few weeks of training in January were extremely hard, she says: lots of pushups, not a lot of sleep, but a great deal of hostility from drill sergeants conditioning recruits to face hostility in battle, struggling with their own post-traumatic stress, or simply acting out their sadism. Aristine characterized it as "ten times worse than in the movies." She was in Charlie Company, Third Battalion, 10th Unit, 4th Platoon. Her platoon had four drill sergeants, three of them male named Davis, Harris, and something like Fontana (she doesn't remember this name clearly), and one female drill sergeant named Gilliard.
The woman sergeant was not what you would call gentle and loving. Aristine witnessed Gilliard yank a male soldier across a desk and injure him. His offense had been to request a pen. Fontana (or whatever his exact name was) made Gilliard look sweet and delicate by comparison. He was shorter and meaner than the others, according to Maharry. She saw him slam a female private named Barr up against a wall.
Aristine is amazingly understanding of this abuse. The sergeants, she says, had just done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The training was their rest period between tours of combat. They were all, she believes, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Aristine's understanding this is even more amazing considering what happened next.
Aristine was doing pushups along with the other privates. It was dark. Fontana came up behind her and kicked her hard repeatedly in the pelvis. The next morning, with her 50-pound rucksack, Aristine was not able to keep up on the run in her usual way. One of the drill sergeants, Harris, told her she would have to report to "sick call."
That night, Private Barr came and got Maharry. The two of them went to the military police (MP) and told their stories of abuse. The MPs sent them right back without indicating that they would do anything at all. The reports that the MPs took down may or may not still exist among their records.
The next morning Aristine reported to sick call. Before she did, Gilliard whispered in her ear that she needed to say she had slipped on ice, which was a complete fabrication. An X-ray showed a fractured pelvis. Aristine was put in the Army hospital on the base from January 8, 2005 to February 1st or 2nd, immobilized in bed with a morphine drug for pain. She was then sent on 30-day convalescent leave with heavy pain killers. If she did not return after the 30 days, she was told, the Army would come and find her. Through the course of her initial processing and training, she had already been advised repeatedly that going AWOL (absent without official leave) was punishable by anything up to death.
Aristine says she was "terrified" and "scared to death." She didn't tell her husband what had happened, as she was afraid that if he raised the issue she would be punished when she returned to the Army. When she did return, she pleaded with a physical therapist not to send her back to the same unit. It turned out that it was standard practice not to do that. Aristine worked hard, she says, to recover fast in the Physical Therapy Rehabilitation Program (PTRP) because those who did not, the "hold-overs," would be kept in separate rooms in barracks with their units' drill sergeants and would often be raped. Aristine did not use the word "rape" but indicated sex that was unwanted. "Rape" or "command rape" is an accurate term.
Unfortunately, the First Sergeant for the same Company she had been in before came and requested that Aristine return to the same unit. She passed a test and was returned. Once back, she was kept in a separate room, but resisted the drill sergeants' attempts at sex, she says. A couple of female holdovers, she says, were also kept in private rooms. They would be taken out at night, and would cry endlessly when they were returned.
Aristine was now in the fourth week of training, with the same company, platoon, and drill sergeants (except for Fontana who was no longer there), but all new privates, her original group having long since graduated. Aristine was miserable, terrified, and "crying, crying, crying." "How," she asked herself, "could they send me back here?" The First Sergeant told her: "You'd better not open your mouth about what happened last time." Maharry was still on lots of pain medicine and suffering mental pain as well.