Heather Fish was on a U.S. Navy ship headed to Iraq when her commanding officer raped her, a crime she kept to herself, she said, until she realized the military would never punish him.
"I'm not keeping it personal anymore," Petty Officer 2nd Class Fish said. Today at the annual Take Back the Night, she and several other women will speak publicly about enduring and surviving sexual assault.
"For me it's a reason ... so it doesn't have that hold over me, it's taking control, taking the power back," she said.
She had been sexually assaulted before and believed her attackers when they told her no one would believe her and she would be blamed, she said. But when her supervisor on the Navy ship raped her, Petty Officer 2nd Class Fish said she refused to be afraid any longer. She reported the assault.
"He had just turned chief. They didn't want to tarnish his career. Ridiculous," she said.
She worries about other female sailors still on duty with him, and she wonders whether things would have been different if other women, who later told her of his inappropriate behavior with them, had reported it.
"I think you don't want to think someone is capable of something like that," Petty Officer 2nd Class Fish said. She believes the military leaders don't. "I think a lot of women in the military feel they have to go public for anything to be accomplished."
Petty Officer 2nd Class Fish hopes those who hear her tonight will know sexual assault won't end your life.
"It gets better and you can really get your life back, not live in fear."
Towanna Godowns thought she had perfect control over her life by shutting down all emotion and rejecting any prospect of trusting another person, she said.
But the sexual abuse of a loved one sent her life in a tailspin.
The memories of her own childhood sexual molestation refused to stay in the mental box she had spent years sealing tight.
"All of this anger and hatred and bitterness and fear all came up at one time," Mrs. Godowns said.
Three relatives had molested her between ages 7 and 14, she said.
Therapy and counseling helped her mend.
"I thought I was the only one who had ever been abused," until she began group counseling, Mrs. Godowns said.
Now when she speaks in public, she hears the same refrain from the audience.
"When they see me standing there, saying I'm not bound by this anymore, it gives them hope," Mrs. Godowns said.
"When you speak out ... it gives us a sense of power and authority our abusers had held. It breaks the silence and makes me feel victorious."
Mrs. Godowns also will speak tonight at Take Back the Night.
More than 2,000 pinwheels will be placed in the ground, each representing a Georgia child who was molested.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.