Sheila Procella joined the Air Force in 1974 to “see the Earth,” she said. She enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War, shortly after graduating from high school. Although she never left her home state of Texas during eight years of service, her office job proved to be its own battlefield.
“Some of us actually went to war, some of us had war right here in the states, going to work every day knowing we are going to be harassed,” said Procella, now 62 and living in Plano.
At the time, fewer than 3 percent of service members were women. Procella recalls the daily barrage of sexual comments, gestures and men grabbing her inappropriately. And one of her superiors made it clear that her hopes of moving up the career ladder depended on having sex with him.
“He was kind of discreet about the way he put it, but his one advance and my one acceptance of his advance led to my promotion,” Procella said.
At the time, Procella, who served in the Air Force until 1979 and then went on to the Texas Air National Guard until 1982, accepted the common belief that reporting the incidents would be bad for her career. “It definitely wasn’t talked about, you definitely did not report your superiors for any kind of harassment,” she explained. “At the time that it happens you sweep it away like you’re going to be OK.”
But it wasn’t OK, and after her military career, Procella found herself dependent on alcohol and drugs to cope.
Eventually, she came to associate her deep depression, anxiety and panic attacks with the harassment and assaults during her military service. Procella, who had also experienced childhood sexual abuse, was diagnosed with military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in 2014, nearly three decades after her service. Today she has a 70 percent disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
There are many others like Procella, who served decades ago but are just coming to terms with their experience.
A 2015 study published by the American Psychological Association asked 327 female veterans in Southern California about their experiences with sexual trauma. They divided the respondents into two groups — those who served before the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and those in uniform afterward. Nearly half of those in the earlier group reported sexual contact against their will during their military service. In the later group, reports of unwanted sexual contact dropped to 30 percent.
A majority of those who reported sexual abuse met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, the researchers said.
And a study published last year in the journal Women’s Health Issues found that women ages 45 to 54 reported more sexual harassment and assault while in the military than other age groups.
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