Taking the Leap
Yokota Air Base, Japan -- “DOOR!” they shouted as the plane’s engines roared, circling higher and higher to reach altitude. The time for questions, doubts and second guesses had passed. Shuffling into position as her body had done hundreds of jumps before, only the nod from her team lead kept her in place. That nod was her cue to jump; to let go of not only the plane, but the emotions that had weighed her down. Plummeting to earth, the only sound audible to her was that of the wind rushing outside of her helmet providing a clear mental silence. In that moment of clarity, she felt the comfort of her friends moving toward her in formation. Their hands extended out to her essentially welcoming her back from her journey. It was her first time jumping since the attack, but jumping is what it always had been for her, a passion. That return to passion brought with it feelings long since forgotten. She was safe, and she was finally home.
For U.S. Air Force Maj. Donna Sickler, 374th Medical Group, group practice manager and alternate sexual assault response coordinator at Yokota Air Base, Japan, that jump was a huge step in her quest for a new normal. Three months prior to that free fall she was the victim of sexual assault.
Eight years removed from that jump, today she is a survivor using the power of her story to make a difference in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response community.
“My problems just felt so small from 13,000 feet,” said Sickler. “I’ve been an avid sky diver for years, completing countless jumps; but that jump in particular I will always remember. It’s as if the problems and horrible experiences I had to go through just to get there floated away. For the first time in three months I felt safe; felt emotions that I would consider healthy. I was no longer filled with the anger of not only what had happened to me but also the countless times I was forced to relive my trauma working through a system not yet designed to meet my needs as a victim. This is my story.”
In April 2011, Sickler, a medical service corps officer in the Iowa National Guard and single mother of three boys back home, was on the verge of completing her 12-month deployment in Afghanistan when her two-week rest and relaxation break had come up.
“Up until that point I hadn’t deployed yet,” said Sickler. “I was 10 years into my career and I was excited to finally do my part, to give back to the service that had done so much for me in my life. I knew it was going to be hard to say goodbye to my boys, and it was, but it was my time. I was happy to make that sacrifice.”
Knowing full well how hard it was to say goodbye to her boys just to get to her deployment almost a year prior, Sickler elected not to rip open the scars of saying goodbye a second time to her children and chose to make other plans for her two weeks.
“I saw how hard it was for my boys, and I didn’t want to do that to them again. I was about to go home once my deployment ended anyway, so I decided that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to see another country,” said Sickler. “Being the Beatles fan that I am, I decided to go to England for my two weeks. If I’m going to see another country, I want to see it from the sky, I thought to myself, so I packed my gear and headed off.
“Upon arriving in London I found myself at a drop zone in the small town of Swindon where a group of jumpers took me in. We would all hang out to together after a long day of jumping, they would show me the local area and take me out for fish and chips. Between the people and the place it was such a beautiful country.”
As her trip was nearing its end and the inevitable return to finish her deployment loomed, Sickler and her new group of friends went out for one last night of fun at a nearby pub. Despite only having a single glass of beer throughout the entirety of the evening, leaving that bar to return to the campground would be the last thing she would remember of that night.
“I woke up the next morning in a position that I would never have put myself in willingly, in a place that I was not familiar with and I freaked out,” said Sickler.
Her mind racing in a state of absolute panic, Sickler quickly ran to the bathroom to try and connect the dots of what had happened. Struggling to assemble a puzzle of memories she did not have all of the pieces to, she came to the realization that she had to have been drugged.
“I knew that one drink didn’t do that to me,” said Sickler. “I had no doubt about that. In that moment of looking back and trying to remember what had happened I just knew I had to get back to London and catch my flight back to Afghanistan. My first step in moving forward and making that happen was to get in the shower next to me and scrub away all of the ick that I felt.”
An added unfortunate reality of the situation was that the only way for Sickler to get to the airport on time for her flight was via the same man who had done this to her.
“It was after we stopped by the drop zone to get the rest of my things that he finally realized something was wrong,” said Sickler. “I was clearly very upset, I was not speaking and he immediately started trying to fix things with me. I knew I needed him to get me back to London so despite everything I was feeling, despite being on the verge of shutting down emotionally, I had to slap on a smiling face and convince him that nothing was wrong anymore, pretend to accept his apology and get back to my unit.”
With fake smile intact and her attacker thinking his apology accepted, he finally did bring Sickler back to the hotel on Heathrow that she had been staying at. The trip was not easy for her, their time spent together in travel only prolonged by the tightened security and traffic of the royal wedding in 2011.
“As he stood by me at the check-out counter, it was as if time stood still, I was so close to finally not having to look at him,” said Sickler. “After hotel staff finally confirmed my check-out, my attacker said goodbye and hugged me one last time. As he walked away the mask I forced myself to wear crumbled and tears ran down my face. The emotions I had to pretend weren’t there to get away from him rushed back over me. In that brief moment I did feel the smallest resemblance of safety. It was as safe as I could have felt after what had happened to me.”
The gravity of everything still weighing on her, Sickler did make it to the airport on time. Still in a state of shock as she took her seat to wait for her plane, she turned to social media for a distraction. Surprisingly, waiting there for her was a message from her attacker.
“I am sorry that I did what I did, but you were just so pretty and so lovely that I just had to be with you,” he said. “I was an idiot but I know you are strong enough to forget.”
That message provided all of the puzzle pieces that remained missing from her memory of that night. Deep down she had already known the grim truth but his hardly sincere apology completely void of remorse only lead to a wave of anger rushing over her. Anger aside, she knew he was right, she was strong enough to get through this.
“I didn’t sleep for a while after that,” said Sickler. “I boarded my plane and made it back to my unit. With my first priority accomplished I could now focus on getting the care I needed. The next day I went to the emergency room. Despite every possibility of what could happen to me as a result of coming forward and actually saying ‘I was raped,’ I knew I needed help. I knew I was not going to get through this alone.”
According to Sickler, in 2011 there were a lot of perceived cons associated with coming forward: victim shaming, commander disdain, and unit gossip could lead to career issues. This was merely the tip of the iceberg.
While the SAPR curriculum currently focuses on prevention and intervention, the pre-deployment training provided at the time was mainly aimed at not becoming a victim. Don’t look this way, don’t drink too much and don’t be around a lot of guys. By doing any of those things it was somehow the victim’s fault.
“I didn’t do any of those things,” said Sickler. “I was 36, a single mother wearing clothing very appropriate for my age, barely drank anything and yet something still happened to me. I knew my story but what others could do to my truth could skew the way people would view me. If word got out, who knows what could have happened. It was a risk getting help, but a risk that I needed to take.
“I was scared but I found the courage to march my way into that hospital to get help. I told them that I was raped, and they immediately put me in a room. That was the first time I said those words aloud.”
It would certainly not be the last time she would have to speak those words or tell her story in a system not properly fleshed out yet at the time to handle her needs. With her initial exam complete, Sickler turned her focus to the people she knew would maintain her confidentiality, mental health.
“Mental health ended up being who was able to help me the most,” said Sickler. “They were still considered very taboo at the time, but I was already in somewhat murky territory. The individual who ended up helping me asked why I was there, and I honestly couldn’t really answer that yet. I had not fully processed everything. The one thing I did know is that I wasn’t going to let this define me.
“After that visit to the hospital, my next two weeks in Afghanistan were fairly robotic for me. I was prescribed sleeping pills, which helped, but I was still just a grey blob just going through the motions of things. There was no joy in life and no joy in work anymore; I was alive but not living.”
It was while drudging through the motions of things in a world of grey that a ride on a routine shuttle bus across base would trigger all of the emotions that had been hiding beneath the surface since the attack.
“The shuttle bus was essentially a glorified van,” said Sickler. “A man got on the bus and sat down next to me. Nothing new, a mundane thing that I had been fine with countless times in my time there. I had never had any issues before, yet this time was different; I was different. I began to freak out all over again. I got the shakes, I was sweating. It made me realize that something was very wrong with me.
“My emotions started to rush back to me after that. I was no longer that grey creature but was being bombarded with color, almost all of which was red. I was angry, I was scared and I had no idea what to do next. Worst of all, I didn’t know how to make it better. Under the weight of the situation, I just withdrew and stopped going to meals with my team. I felt helpless not knowing what to do.”
It was after noticing her withdrawal that her teammates realized Sickler was not doing well. Not knowing the true burden of the situation she was going through, they went to the hospital to try to get her some help.
“Mental health called me in one last time after word got back to them, and I told them how I felt,” said Sickler. “All of the anger, all of the fear, on top of all of the emotions that I just did not know how to classify. Knowing I had pulled away from my team, he told me they were not going to be able to help me there; they needed to send me home. I just accepted it. Deep down I knew it was true. I wasn’t getting better. Prior to departing Afghanistan I was formally diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
After landing in the states Sickler was transferred to a hospital at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. Their first step in providing care was to place her in a room alone with a male medical technician, the door shut sealing them away from world. Immediately the same emotions that emerged back on the shuttle bus came rushing back.
“They failed to understand why that situation was a problem for me,” said Sickler, “I had already had to tell my story to an ambulance crew in route to the hospital, and I just didn’t want to keep saying what happened to me over and over. I opened the door, saw a female technician in a hallway, and immediately called her in there with me. My state of mind was only getting worse as time went on. I just wanted to get home to my family. To my support system.”
Before she could get home to that support system Sickler would have to become a part of the Warrior Transition Unit, a unit designed to help transition wounded warriors back into society.
“I know they wanted to help me but at the end of the day it was just not the help I needed,” said Sickler. “They did very little to actually address my mental health situation. Their version of curing my anxiety was making me go into a Walmart and buying something from the back of the store. That didn’t help me. My entire experience there was essentially ‘this is the care we think you need and not something tailored to my situation.’’’
“A saving grace for me was that my parents lived nearby, and I was allowed to go home to them on the weekends. They were my one escape from the little apartment I stayed in alone as I waited for more treatment.”
The first time she went home to her weekend sanctuary, Sickler’s father helped her surprise her mother. Not even the surprise of seeing her daughter for the first time in over a year could stop her mother from seeing that this was not the same daughter she had come to know.
“She surprised me at work, but I immediately knew something was wrong,” said Donna Harris, mother of Donna Sickler. “It wasn’t until the next day that she would tell me her story, but it all made sense. It’s hard to explain, but as she shared with me her story I just felt this monstrous pit in my stomach that I could never fully describe.”
“How could this happen to my daughter? What happened was horrible but seeing her deal with the struggles of the situation on a daily basis was equally hard to stomach. She kept this small electronic solitaire game close by to help distract her when times were rough. The entire time she was in the transition unit, I don’t think I ever saw that game leave her side. It was how she coped.”
That solitaire game by her side every step of the way, Sickler’s mental state slowly grew worse as the weeks passed by, each week away from her children. It was after her sixth week that she was considered ready to return home. Her last hurdle before returning to her boys was out-processing.
“In order to out-process out of the transition unit we needed to go through a gauntlet of stations to be officially declared ready,” said Sickler. “Each station had a different doctor who felt they needed to hear my story as they figured out why I was there to begin with. I will always remember one provider in particular. She started quizzing me about my story, accusing me of making up the report solely to get out of my deployment.
“It was a beyond frustrating experience that only added to my anger. I had to tell my story over 20 times as I out-processed because every doctor thought they needed to know. Oddly enough, at the time my anger was not aimed at my rapist but at everyone else. I was angry with the Army, I was angry that I had to sit in this transition unit when it was the farthest thing from what I needed to get better. I needed my support system. After my experience there, in particular my experience with care provider who questioned my story, I just had resentment for anyone in a uniform.”
That July she would finally get home to Iowa. It had taken three months, but Sickler was finally where she needed to be.
“When I finally got home things were good again,” said Sickler. “I couldn’t tell my kids but having them around me and having a full time job to distract me finally allowed me to have a new sense of normal. I was able to start seeing a therapist and that really helped me process what I had been through. Between my family, my shrink and being able to jump again, I was able to make a lot of progress in my life.”
As the comforts of home, family, and skydiving allowed Sickler to get to her new normal, they also gave her the opportunity to reflect on her experience in the system.
“I had a lot of time to think about if I wanted to continue my military career or not,” said Sickler. “I just knew I never wanted anyone else to have to live through what I had gone through. I felt I had to tell my story too many times as a 36 year-old officer, I could only imagine the treatment and pressure put on younger and lower ranking individuals who are going to medical personnel for help and not getting the help they needed. I was just like them and thinking about that poor treatment just brought back more anger. But this time the anger was different. I was angry because I needed to find a way to make things better. Things weren’t right as they stood.”
Change. Donna knew it needed to happen because the victims of sexual assault deserved better than they were being provided at the time. It led her to transition from the National Guard to the active duty Air Force. Full-time change would not come from working a part-time job. It would be a long road to the change she desired, but she knew she had to start somewhere.
“When I got to my first duty station at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., I immediately met the people of the local SAPR office and took the steps necessary to become a victim advocate,” said Sickler. “Becoming a VA is probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Sitting through that training, watching the films, talking about rape and how victims are treated afterwards was difficult. It took a lot to not break down. But I made it through the course knowing that I could help people. I knew I could make a difference for somebody.
“That thought of helping others has always helped me have the courage to do more and more as I’ve become more comfortable telling my story. I’ve been able to speak at multiple events since then, sharing my story with anybody who will listen. The first time I shared my story I don’t even remember what I said or how I said it, but I stood up there and did it. It has only gotten easier with each time I tell it. It has become almost cathartic for me.”
When telling her story now, years later, Sickler makes a point to wear her parachute symbolizing the weight all survivors must carry.
“I wear my parachute because I still carry a lot of the burden of what happened to me,” said Sickler. “It has been eight years, and I still have symptoms of anxiety and depression. I don’t have flashbacks, but there are days when I wake up and feel that something is just off. I am more sensitive to noise and being around people on those days can be difficult.
“It’s easy to forget that I carry that weight with me every day. I don’t always think about it. It has made me what I am today, but it is not who I am. This parachute represents the weight and gravity of all the experiences I had during this difficult time in my life. I’ve been wearing the parachute a while now, I got used it. I wouldn’t say it is comfortable ,but I got used to it. Some days I can ignore the fact that it is there. But then there are days when the weight of that parachute feels heavier than normal, feels more noticeable.”
As Sickler has become more and more comfortable with her parachute’s weight, she has progressed to a point where she is ready to share her story with everyone, to help facilitate change in a system that has already progressed so much since she originally went through it.
“I hope that by hearing my story and sharing just how far the SAPR program has come allows victims to have trust in us as a potential source of help,” said Sickler. “I know the old system, that system failed me. Seeing the program and working in the program today, it is so much better. There is a level of empathy that just was not there when I needed it. We have a broader and better understanding of the needs of victims and today’s program shows that. If today’s program was in place when I needed it, I would be more well-adjusted than I am.”
According to the 2017 SAPR Annual Report, the number of reports of incidents of sexual assaults across the Department of Defense are on the rise and have steadily risen over the years. A trend that Sickler feels is more reflective of the increased trust in the SAPR program.
“Even as the number of reports go up I know there are still people out there suffering in silence. The one thing everyone needs to understand is that no one is worth losing. I need every victim that is out there, whether they have come forward or not, whether they have addressed their trauma on their own or not, to realize that they are important. You can still come forward and talk to us. We don’t just help people who were sexually assaulted while in the military. People come to us for help for things that happened years ago, long before they ever joined the military,” said Sickler.
“On the off chance we cannot offer you direct service we will point you in the direction of resources you can utilize. If you have never told your story before and you want to tell it, we will listen. If you need help, we will find you the help you need. We are a confidential resource that you can reach out to. The SAPR office exists to educate and empower you to make decisions that best suit your needs no matter where you are on your the road to recovery. The people in the SAPR program helped me get back to what would become my new normal. Given the opportunity, I know we can help you do the same.”
“I think that with the right resources, anybody who is the victim of sexual assault is strong enough to get through it. I didn’t have all of the resources I needed, which is why I do what I do. That is why I am telling my story here. The more we talk about it, the more commanders talk about it, and the more obvious it becomes that sexual assault is not something we are just going to tolerate.”
“Together we can make a difference.”
If you or anyone you know has been the victim of sexual assault and require assistance of any kind, please do not hesitate to contact the SAPR office at 225-7277, or in the event of an emergency, 225-7272.
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