Veterans bring awareness to sexual assault with clothes

Editor’s Note: To protect anonymity, we are referring to the recovering veteran as Karen.

By ALANA HERNANDEZ

Staff Writer

HARLINGEN — As Army veteran Pablo “Paul” Juarez walked past the receptionist desk and made his way toward the exit, something caught his eye.

Something so captivating it made him stop in his tracks.

Sitting on a table filled with brochures and teal ribbons was a pair of jeans.

But they weren’t just any old pair of jeans.

They had stickers and paper letters glued on them that read, “My little black dress does not mean yes.”

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), the Department of Veterans Affairs Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System in Harlingen exhibited a traveling clothesline project Wednesday.

The project serves as a representation of military men and women who have been sexually assaulted.

This year’s SAAM theme across the VA is “Creating Pathways to Healing: VA’s Services for Military Sexual Trauma Survivors.”

The clothesline project was designed to help raise sexual harassment and assault awareness.

About 15 decorated T-shirts and jeans made up the Clothesline Project.

The clothes were decorated by Valley Coastal Bend Heath Care System veterans who have been sexually assaulted and received counseling.

“After treatment, they created the shirts as a form of healing,” said Melica Wiley, the licensed clinical marriage and family therapist who serves as VCB’s Military Sexual Trauma coordinator.

“We wanted to display them to show veterans’ recovery is possible, and to give a voice to them in a different way.”

The impact

Juarez said he didn’t know very much information about sexual assault or sexual harassment until he came across the Clothesline Project at the VA.

He believes the clothing is powerful in what it says and what it means.

“It’s sad that victims are the ones who decorated these clothes,” he said. “They had to put their words on clothing just to express how they felt after they were assaulted.”

After seeing the display, he believes everyone should be more aware of the issue.

“Awareness really needs to be pushed because I think this will help those who’ve experienced it and maybe might be feeling scared to get help,” Juarez said.

Seeking help

Wiley said her personal goal in helping veterans recover is helping them either get back to or get a life they want to live.

“Some veterans have a really strong support system and others may not who are feeling alone,” she said. “We can be their support and walk through the journey with them.”

Whether it’s two months into treatment or two years, Wiley said she feels honored and privileged to see recovering veterans gain hope that they can have the life they want.

“At the VA, we’re here to help and there are tons of services available,” Wiley said. “Talk to your primary care doctor, your mental health provider or reach out to me and I can help navigate services.”

Local survivor

According to Wiley, one in five women and one in 100 men have reported being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed while they were in the military.

Karen, 43, said she experienced several sexual assault and harassment traumas that began in her childhood.

She began therapy sessions with the Valley Coastal Bend Heath Care System in 2009 a short time before she got out of the military.

Karen said she began experiencing many problems after she left the military.

She thought her problems were stemming from her struggle to have a civilian lifestyle after leaving the military.

But she soon realized that wasn’t the root of her issues.

The problems were the aftermath of sexual traumas Karen experienced that she believes weren’t “letting (her) deal with life itself.”

“Being a female is kind of hard and I guess I was in denial,” she explained. “After suppressing it for so long, people don’t realize they were not at fault.”

Karen said she still receives therapy from the Valley Coastal Bend Heath Care System, but feels like she has come a long way.

She wants sexual assault and sexual harassment survivors to speak up if they need help because “there is help for everybody.”

“A lot of therapy has helped me come a long way, but I’m still standing,” Karen said with determination.

Where to find help

• For more information, or if you are a veteran who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault and would like to speak with the military sexual trauma coordinator, call Melica Wiley at (361) 939-6513.

Common sexual assault and hara

Common sexual assault, harassment struggles reported by male veterans

• Anger

• Shame

• Sleep trouble

• Chronic pain

• Panic or anxiety

• Reckless behavior

• Masculinity worries

• Sexual concerns

• Relationship problems

MORE INFO

Common sexual assault, harassment struggles reported by female veterans

• Strong emotions

• Family and relationship problems

• Eating or body image issues

• Difficulties with trust or communication

• Pain and physical problems

• Self-esteem problems

• Sexual concerns

• Work or school problems

• Avoidance or isolation

• Reckless behavior