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Confronting Military Sexual Trauma

Army veteran BriGette Mccoy is advocating for the victims of MST - including herself

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JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis

This is the first in an ongoing series about the veterans of Atlanta, in which current and former servicemen and servicewomen recount their experiences in the military.

BriGette Mccoy — the daughter and granddaughter of veterans of the Vietnam War and World War II, respectively — grew up in South Central Los Angeles and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1987. With a top-secret clearance, Mccoy served in the Signal Corps from 1988-1991 in Zweibrücken, Germany. After living with undiagnosed PTSD for more than 15 years, Mccoy acknowledged in 2007 that she had suffered Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Since then, she has worked as an advocate for female veterans, veterans and the arts, and victims of MST. An estimated 19,000 people a year are sexually assaulted in the military, according to a 2010 report by the Department of Defense.

In 2006, Mccoy founded Women Veterans for Social Justice, an organization that supports female veterans with entrepreneurial and business resources. She also works for the ArtReach Foundation and Warrior Songs Women Project and is a graduate of the V-WISE (Women Veterans Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship) program. She was featured in Service: When Women Come Marching Home, a 2011 film about the challenges facing disabled female veterans. In March 2013, Mccoy, 43, testified before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Surgeon General's task force about the sexual assault she experienced while serving.

She has lived in Atlanta with her daughter for 10 years.


I was an African-American female growing up in South Central Los Angeles. I was a computer kid, a geeky girl. I also wanted to do singing and dancing and music. Ninety-seven percent of the things I was interested in didn't fit in any format that was inside of my community, so what I wanted, I had to get from outside.

[My parents] wanted me to be a nurse. I tried the office work thing. I did an executive secretary program in high school, and in the MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] I got into, it actually helped me. But sitting at a desk? I just couldn't see that. I ended up doing that, but it was with computers, not dictation.

My mother pretty much didn't want me to go [into the military] and my father, he just tried to give other options. I don't think they thought I could do it. I was Private Benjamin to them. I liked to get my hair done. I liked to go to the nail shop. I signed up my senior year of high school under the Delayed Entry Program. I'd just turned 18.

I loved drill and ceremony. We're marching, we're singing, we're doing all these fancy movements. We're doing it all together at the same time. It was the closest I could get to acting, singing, and dancing. Our drill sergeant, he would call cadence. And a male step is a little bit longer than a women's step, and so we would always get out of sync with him. He'd make us push [do push-ups] and then we'd start again.

I would just get so tickled by that. So one day, I'm just marching and laughing, and he pulled me out: "You can do better!" He made me sing cadence and that's just right up my alley. They could hear me all the way from one end of Fort Jackson to the other end. Literally, sergeants were coming to see who was singing cadence. So, they made me march the battalion, all of our units together. I guess they wanted to embarrass me. Again, that wasn't going to [work]. I marched our whole battalion from mess to the barracks area. And I was good. Before they dismissed everybody, they put me in front-leaning rest while everybody was gathered around, and they made me push. So I wouldn't get a big head, you know. I loved it.

When [my parents] came to my graduation, my mom was like, "You made it!" I could tell she was really happy for me, but she was really shocked. My dad, he was just excited to see me in uniform, neat and squared away. I saw it in his eyes. Proud. They were both proud, but my dad, because he is a Vietnam veteran, he understood the process I had to go through.

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I went in as a Data Telecommunications Specialist. I started training on Valentine's Day of 1988, and I got to Germany in May of 1988. We ran a communication center in Zweibrücken. I had to get a top-secret clearance. We were in a big vault, with magnetic tape readers, high-speed printers, optical readers, old-time modems, where you put the phone in them — that's how long ago this was. Any types of documentation that had to go from the United States to any other countries came through our communication center. Some non-classified, but any classified up through top-secret messaging. Twenty-four hours, seven days a week.

SQUARED AWAY: Private BriGette Mccoy at Fort Jackson in South Carolina in 1987, her first year in the Army.
  • Courtesy BriGette McCoy
  • SQUARED AWAY: Private BriGette Mccoy at Fort Jackson in South Carolina in 1987, her first year in the Army.

I loved my job. I knew my stuff. I trained people. I wasn't afraid of computers — I would work on them and fix them. I learned everything I could about the system. I loved Germany, the people, the experience. I loved buying clothes in Germany. I loved having a tailor. I loved wearing Italian leather. I bought a lot of things. Probably too much.

I was waiting on my clearance; it hadn't come in yet. Somewhere between the end of May and the beginning of July, they had me work for the commander. Well, they merged both of the commanders' offices and their orderly rooms, so only one office [the orderly staff] took over. I ended up working for this NCO [non-commissioned officer], and he seemed very nice. He seemed like he was very concerned that I do well in my career. He would give me jobs and I would finish them quickly and do them well. He took a special interest in me and I thought it was genuinely about helping me to advance my career, an experienced soldier to a new soldier. I was thrilled that someone would take the time and do that.

He said we were going to go to dinner. He was going to have some great news to tell me, and we were going to celebrate my birthday. When he said it was just going to be me and him, I didn't think anything of it. It was no big deal. We went to a restaurant — I have no idea where because I hadn't been in the country long enough to know where I was. It was in a hotel. We sat down and ate. There wasn't anything that made me feel uncomfortable. He said, "By the way, I put in your paperwork for you to get promoted." So we had a drink, we toasted to that. And then, he said, "I have something else to show you."

And we got in this elevator — like this old elevator with the gate that you slide across, I'd never seen anything like that — and as we were going up, you could see the whole bottom floor of this hotel, the foyer, the restaurant. He never said where we were going. I was just following him. He opened the door, and I went alongside of him and went in the room, and as my eyes adjusted I'm thinking, "Why would he bring me in here?" because I'm seeing it's a bed, a lamp, and a little table.

And when I turned around to ask him, that's when ... I won't say he attacked me, because he didn't hit me, he didn't slam me or anything like that. He just came close to me and began touching and kissing me. I was really confused, like, "Why is this person doing this?" It struck me as so out of character. He'd said things jokingly, all the guys in the service did, but he had never made me feel afraid to be alone with him.

After everything happened, I was scared. He was giving me my clothes asking me, "Are you OK?" I remember turning my head away and nodding. But I was scared. If he did this to me, is he really going to take me back? I didn't even know where I was. The whole way back, I was just staring out the car window.

He was an NCO. A senior NCO. And here I was an E2 [Private]. There was no way my word was going to go against his. I had no confidence. At all. And Monday morning, I went to work, and he worked with me like nothing had happened.

My commanding officer actually asked me if everything was OK. I just said, "Yeah. Everything's great. I'm fine. Everybody's good." After she talked to me, she went to him and said specifically they needed to find out what was holding up my [security] clearance. I'd been waiting for months. It was taking forever. A day or two later my clearance came through, and I was in the communications center working. He was holding it up. I think he had planned the whole thing, down to the letter.

I don't think consciously I was thinking about it. I think that subconsciously there were a lot of negative thoughts going on. That I'm a bad person. That there's something wrong with me, that I must have some letter on my head. Because he wasn't the only person. Someone else did the same thing [a few months later] — but he came into my room while I was sleeping. I woke up and he was on top of me. I knew he had been drinking, but I was confused about how he got into my room. I know I locked the door. First of all, where I'm from, I would lock the door anyway, and after everything that happened, I would always lock the door. I just told him to get off of me, and he did and he left. And I thought, maybe I just had a dream. I couldn't put all the pieces together. The next morning, I was getting dressed, and he came to me and said, "Please don't tell anybody." That's how I knew it wasn't a dream.

SENATE HEARING: (L-R) Anu Bhagwati, executive director and co-founder of the Service Women’s Action Network; BriGette Mccoy, former specialist in the U.S. Army; Rebekah Havrilla, former sergeant in the U.S. Army; and Brian Lewis, former petty
  • Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • SENATE HEARING: (L-R) Anu Bhagwati, executive director and co-founder of the Service Women’s Action Network; BriGette Mccoy, former specialist in the U.S. Army; Rebekah Havrilla, former sergeant in the U.S. Army; and Brian Lewis, former petty officer third class in the U.S. Navy testify about being sexually assaulted while in the military during a hearing March 13, 2013, in Washington, D.C. The hearing on sexual assault was before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Personnel Subcommittee chaired by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

My command decided to send me to the detached unit [in Miesau, Germany]. I went to the detachment in September. November through April or May I was fine. While I was there, I got pregnant in a consensual relationship. Maybe June or July of '89 [unit command] found out, so they moved me back [to Zweibrücken].

And the sexual harassment started. There were two different people it was coming from: there was a senior NCO and the commanding officer. Inappropriate words, inappropriate touching. The commanding officer followed me, stalking me. He was "trying to catch me" is what he said. Those were his words. When I reported it, [I was told] I didn't understand what his intentions were.

I tried multiple times to get out of that unit and they said that I was mission essential. I had a general ask for me to be in his unit, and they said that I was mission essential. I couldn't get out of the unit.

As soon as I [filed] sexual harassment paperwork, I got out of the unit because I was discharged. The person who helped me file was another NCO, another female. She said that the person I was filing against, he had said stuff to her as well, and "my husband will lose his career if I say something. But I will help you file this paperwork and I will stand beside you."

I got my honorable discharge [in 1991]. I deserved the honorable discharge any damn way.

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I landed in North Carolina. [My daughter's] dad had gotten out a year before, and he was living in North Carolina. But I was very angry. And you can't get help and support when you're angry and volatile. He's out of the military, he has his own issues, and I have my own issues and we're trying to make it work, not just to be supportive of each other but for the baby. It became a very bad situation very quickly.

So I got a job, I got a car, a place to live. I went to school, and I was raising my daughter and I was just trying to get on with my life. This was 1991.

Around 2001 or '02, after two major car accidents, I started spiraling. I call it my "getting missing" stages. I wasn't in contact with anybody — my family, my friends. I would drop off for like eight, nine months to a year at a time. My family thought I was doing drugs. That's consistent with behavior of doing drugs. But I wasn't. I was just like, I gotta work, I gotta focus, I can't get caught up in this other stuff and get all emotional. And I was embarrassed that I wasn't doing better. Because I wasn't raised like that. You work hard and you get it together and you get on your feet. And I just couldn't get on my feet. No matter how hard I worked, no matter how good a job, bad a job, how many jobs, how much education ... I just couldn't figure it out.

My grandmother, she sent the police to my house. I opened my front door and the police were there and they said, "Ma'am." I was like, "Oh shit — they found me. I must have done something wrong." And they [mentioned my grandmother.] "Oh, shit," I thought, "something's wrong with her." And I'm like, "Yes?" And they're like "Will you call your grandmother? She's worried about you." I'm just standing at the door going, "OK." It's funny now, but it was not funny then.

I was scared to work in anything military because I was afraid if I did, someone would know me, somebody would know my past. I had a top-secret SCI clearance in the military. I could have written a ticket anywhere I wanted to go. But emotionally, it was too raw for me.

SCREEN TIME: BriGette Mccoy (left) at a 2012 screening of the documentary Service: When Women Come Marching Home on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
  • Courtesy BriGette McCoy
  • SCREEN TIME: BriGette Mccoy (left) at a 2012 screening of the documentary Service: When Women Come Marching Home on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

I think my first time being homeless was in 2003. I suffered a really bad car accident and ended up being off my job for about six months. I ended up losing my house. I ended up losing my car and having to live with some people because I was too ashamed and scared to go home. That's how I ended up living here in Georgia. I ended up in a program called Home Stretch. They're affordable housing for moderate-income families who are on the brink of homelessness. We stayed for about 18 months, and it was great. But when it got bad, it got bad. That's pretty much the way it went with me. I lost my job and couldn't afford to stay in the program, and then ended up getting married and thought that would help me. And that didn't work out, either.

I was hiding from myself, hiding from what had happened. Up until 2006 or '07 I didn't even say I was a veteran. Then in 2006, I finished a masters in theology [at Restoration Theological Seminary in Jonesboro, Ga.]. And you have to do so many hours of intern and externship. I kept working with women. I worked with women with low IQs. And I worked with another group of women who had lost their kids to foster care. And then I thought, nobody's doing anything for homeless veteran women.

I was doing my due diligence, doing some research, gathering data. And in 2006, probably early 2007, I met a lady who put me in touch with a woman named Susan Avila-Smith. [Susan] pretty much could tell by conversation with me that something was not right about my military history. She would ask, "Well, what happened to you in the military?" And I'd be like, "Oh, yeah I served, I'm good." And she was like, "Well, yeah, but what's your story?" And I'd be like, "I served. I'm good." I did not want to talk about it.

She was very kind. She didn't force me. She said, "I think you need to check into Military Sexual Trauma." When I started reading her page VetWOW, I was like this is what happened to me. This is it.

The word rape probably didn't come up until 2010. And I don't think I even said it. I think someone else said it and I nodded. I think the first time I actually said the word out loud in public was at the Senate hearing [in March]. It's like sand in your mouth. It's uncomfortable, it shouldn't be there but you can't get rid of it. I don't care what you do. You can swish your mouth out, and just when you think you got it out, it comes back again.

Why shouldn't the military be a safe workplace? Why shouldn't you be able to lay down in your barrack room and be safe? Why shouldn't you be able to go to your duty station and be safe? 19,000 men and women are getting raped every year [in the military].

But there is one thing I want to say: When we talk about the things that happen in the military, we have to portray them in this way that doesn't diminish them. We're trying to change sexual assault in the military. Not everything when I served was bad. I met some of the best people I ever met in my life, I made some of the most enduring relationships I've had. The skills and the training and the expertise and the travel, I wouldn't change those things.

Even now, when I hear the sound of soldiers walking, when I hear those boots hitting the concrete, I love that sound. I still cry when I hear that sound.

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