Black victim of sexual assault in the military speaks out

theGRIO REPORT - It’s taken her decades to talk openly about being raped, and the discussion still triggers a flood of emotion...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

When Marcel Edwards joined the Air Force in November of 1981, she was a wide-eyed 21-year-old who was proud to serve her country. Now 52, Edwards says that a sexual assault she experienced while in the military has shattered her existence.

In late 1989 Edwards was stationed at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  She was separated from a husband who she says was abusive. A male co-worker who Edwards trusted, a non-commissioned Air Force officer, came to her apartment under the premise that he had something important to tell her. After some small talk that quickly turned sexual, Edwards says he pinned her down and raped her while her two young children slept in the next room.

“He saw me in a vulnerable situation and he took advantage of it, knowing that my husband wasn’t there, that I was separated, and there was no mistake about that,” Edwards, an African-American woman, told theGrio.

A rape victim ignored

Edwards reported the rape to the police, who coordinated their investigation with the Air Force Office of Special Investigation (OSI). But she says the OSI was somewhat adversarial, interrogating her weekly, accusing her of lying and even suggesting that she was dating her perpetrator. She says her friends were called in and questioned and she lamented that she became the subject of a negative whisper campaign on the base and felt ostracized by her peers. “They would question me over and over again,” Edwards said. “They push to the point that you give up and get out.” When asked about Edward’s impression of their investigation, the OSI told theGrio that privacy issues prevented them from commenting on the case.

Edwards says she was ordered to take a lie detector test, and says she was compelled to comply because the police department told her no charges would be filed until she did. The perpetrator was eventually arrested and charged with sexual assault by Fayetteville police, but the case was repeatedly continued. She says she was never deposed for a trial, or called to testify. The most formal procedure, she says, was the lie detector test, which she reportedly passed.

By the time the case made it to the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office, charges against her perpetrator were reduced to “misdemeanor assault on a female” and not a criminal sex related charge. The DA’s office told theGrio that their investigation of the facts did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. The case was referred to “The Dispute Resolution Center.” In short, it was to be handled as a simple issue to be negotiated. Edwards told theGrio, “I did not want to see my perpetrator and decided to take an assignment overseas in Britain.”

The case was eventually dismissed by The Dispute Resolution Center when that office found Edwards was not being responsive and was no longer able to contact her.

During this time, the alleged perpetrator was promoted in the military, according to Edwards. As far as she knows, no further action was ever taken. “The damage to my life has happened and it’s irretrievable. I don’t feel I can ever regain my peace of mind, nor my ability to trust, or feel safe again, she said.  “But, I am sharing my story so that I can hopefully help others, especially those who have suffered in silence.”

For a long time after the assault, Edwards could not utter the word “rape.” She internalized her pain and convinced herself that she was defective. She said that she felt hopeless and fearful, wondering if she would be raped again, finding it difficult to trust anyone. She had difficulty sleeping. She attempted suicide.

“You don’t know really what’s going on with you, because you bury this stuff so deep to survive,” she said. “You don’t have good relationships anymore. It ruins your life.”

A path towards healing

Edwards has since been diagnosed with PTSD related to military sexual trauma, and through therapy has learned that, despite what she believes were efforts by investigators to pin responsibility for the rape on her, she was not to blame.

“Because of therapy, I know I’m not a mind reader and I can’t predict the behavior of others,” Edwards said.

Now Edwards is an advocate for NO MORE, the new initiative created by and for a network of organizations that have united to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

Every major sexual assault prevention organization in the country has backed the NO MORE initiative, plus it was recently recognized by the White House on its blog.

“I think NO MORE is bringing that national awareness,” said Edwards, who separated from the Air Force in 1992 and now works in child protective services. “I think information and education is important. You have to educate people about domestic violence and sexual abuse. People have a tendency – even some of the social workers I work with — they think that it’s the victim’s fault.”

The NO MORE logo – similar to the AIDS ribbon and the pink breast cancer ribbon – offers a visual reminder of a pervasive problem in society, drawing attention to an issue that typically remains hidden under a shroud of shame and silence.

“It’s heartening that more and more brave survivors like Marcel are speaking up and saying NO MORE,” said NO MORE Director Virginia Witt. “This is a unifying, catalyzing symbol that men and women across America are using to call for an end to the violence.”