I’m not the typical veteran who served in Iraq that many people might imagine — and by that, I mean I’m a woman. I joined the Army when I was 22, days after 9/11. It seemed like a good way to pay for school and end a relationship I couldn’t manage to leave on my own.
The recruiter promised I’d be stateside fixing computers, and I’d never see war, but driving into Iraq on day two of the initial invasion, a year after I enlisted, I realized he had lied. Dressed in full battle gear, armed with my M16 and adrenaline, I crossed the Iraq’s border riding passenger in a tactical vehicle.
While my friends crammed for tests and drank at frat parties, I was contemplating whether or not I could shoot someone, or the likelihood of dying. The good part about being faced with death is that you get clear on what you want from life, and I really wanted to be a mom more than anything.
The air was thick, covered in dark smoke from the oil wells that oozed a consuming metallic odor. They had been lit by Iraqi soldiers as a war tactic. Our convoy progressed through the dark haze at a slow crawl, driving under 10 mph. Several times a day, just to the side of our long convoy, unarmed Iraqi men bowed on woven prayer mats as we drove our clunky, armed, diesel vehicles by them. As a young woman dressed like a killer, I imagined they were more scared than me. But in war, one thing we have in common with the other side is the desire to live — and I wanted to live.
As the sun was beginning to set that day, in the far distance, I saw an American flag on an Iraqi guard tower waving in the smoky air. This sight told me one thing: I could make it home alive.
My unit set up communications just south of Nasiriyah, where prisoners of war were eventually held.
There were some beautiful things about Iraq. The moon looked red on some nights because of the dust storms. When it was clear, it felt like I could see every star in the sky.
Then there was Sean. From the hall of our building, he heard “Edge of Seventeen” playing in my room. He poked his head in and said, “I love Fleetwood Mac.” He was tall, with speckled blue eyes and adorably crooked teeth.
I responded with a snarky, “It’s Stevie Nicks.” After that we were inseparable.
We fell in love among the chaotic sounds of mortars exploding and the smell of feces burning in metal buckets because we didn’t have plumbing. Bombs blew our building’s windows out while we were inside, and we felt the quiet threat of death was most intense when we drove our Humvees with their shaky vinyl doors to and from Kuwait, careful to avoid anything on the road that might be an improvised explosive device.
Sexual harassment from other soldiers also became part of my daily routine — another layer of war.
“Hey, Bowen, let’s go screw by the bunker,” one sergeant said to me on my way to dinner. Though the attention was unsettling, I adjusted to it the way we all did to bombs being detonated around us. There had been so many rapes on base by American soldiers that our first sergeant made an announcement: “All females must have an escort at all times.” Female soldiers were issued rape whistles while male soldiers weren’t admonished in any way.
One evening, while I was working the night shift, I was sexually assaulted by a higher-ranking sergeant. The following morning, I informed my supervisor and was called into a room with a group of higher-ranking male sergeants.
“Let it go, Bowen,” one said. Another added, “Your career is more important than this.”
I understood reporting meant retaliation, so I rationalized it away: It wasn’t rape, I told myself, and I chose not to file a formal report so that I wouldn’t have to endure any more than I already had. We were told the people we were serving with were our comrades and that we were brothers and sisters deployed to fight a different enemy. Weeks later, I watched as my perpetrator went to the promotion board as if he’d done nothing to me.
Sean and I found an empty bunker one night while we were on a walk. After that, almost every night, we’d visit it and watch through a bay window missing its glass as planes landed. He held me there while I cried in his arms. He would tell me that I was safe. I believed him.
After a year-long deployment, my boots touched American soil again. I knew I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t come home wrapped up in vinyl or with a debilitating injury. I survived unscathed — or so I thought. But after a few months, I noticed the subtle contrast between who I was before the war and who I had become. The changes went unnoticed by most who knew me, but I could no longer cry, I had road rage, and I would startle at loud sounds. Ten months later, I received an honorable discharge and drove to Georgia to marry Sean just months before his next deployment to the middle east.
After a long separation, Sean came home, completed his enlistment and moved to Phoenix with me, but he wasn’t the same. We didn’t know what PTSD was then. We were trained to use an M16 assault rifle to kill our enemies, but we were never shown how to treat our own wounds. We naively believed we could brush off war simply by surviving it.
Sean would drive past the turn to our house and continue on for miles until I told him to go back. He played combat video games while drinking Jack and Coke and shut the door behind him. I blamed myself for his withdrawal and thought he had stopped loving me. When we did go out, the extended silences reminded us we were falling apart.
Sean said he was upset I didn’t need him the way I had needed him in Iraq. I was angry at his detachment. Though I knew I didn’t single-handedly destroy us, I didn’t understand why things were different. I couldn’t understand how things became so different between us, but our marriage dissolved quickly, and my first love became a casualty of war.
A few years later, I took a job in Seattle as a social worker for veterans. While conducting PTSD assessments and providing community assistance, I spoke with hundreds of veterans and learned their stories. Most were struggling with PTSD, some with homelessness, traumatic brain injuries, and the inability to keep a job. Many of the women had stories about Military Sexual Trauma (MST). The men never shared their stories, but I assumed some had their own given the pervasiveness of MST.
Seven years after leaving the military, my own PTSD began to blaze uncontrollably. I struggled to shower and get out of bed. One evening, I came home to the foul smell of dishes in the sink that hadn’t been washed in weeks. I promptly tossed them in the garbage because I didn’t have the energy to clean. At night I had nightmares about war, bombs, vehicles burning, and men attacking me. I’d wake up sweating and my heart throbbing, still trying to kick them off of me. Each night I relived war, and chronic sleep deprivation became an inescapable part of my life.
Veterans are known for their strength and perseverance, but asking for help can be difficult. When I finally had the courage to call the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), their first available mental health appointment was three months out. I wasn’t sure I could make it that long. My thoughts of suicide were unrelenting.
A friend suggested I go to the VA’s emergency room. I still remember the way the wind hit my face walking through the sliding doors. I was diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD and given a bag full of pill bottles to help with depression and sleep ― but my anxiety, nightmares and suicidal thoughts continued for years. I left my job, went on disability and isolated at home.
There weren’t many female veterans at the VA. I was catcalled there and hit on, which reminded me of my time in Iraq. Employees would ask for my husband’s social security number, and I corrected them by saying, “I’m the veteran.”
Once while in the waiting room, a nice old woman passing out quilts to veterans ignored me. “Can I have a quilt?” I asked her. “These are for the veterans,” she responded. “I am a veteran,” I replied. Looking surprised, she gave me a quilt and walked away.
The Army had trained me to fix computers, so I used my troubleshooting skills to access resources for healing. I needed help beyond what the VA offered, so if someone said they could help with my PTSD, I gave them the little money I had.
I attended personal growth seminars where I was told my past was in the past, and it was my job to leave it there, except my nightmares reminded me how impossible this was. I saw a shaman who prayed over me. He sobbed as he accessed my wounds from a spiritual realm. I visited an energy healer named Velda. She placed crystals on my skin and sang in high-pitched sounds while waving an owl feather to clear the past.
An acupuncturist put needles in my ears to slow down my fight-or-flight responses. A sound-bath practitioner made my body vibrate with singing crystal bowls. 26 and 2 yoga classes had me twisting in 108 degree heat. I floated in dark sensory deprivation tanks in search of some peace. I kept a daily gratitude list no matter how awful I felt. All of these things helped but years passed and my symptoms persisted.
When I had the energy to make art, I painted female Buddhas. Losing myself in brushstrokes gave me a reprieve. The Buddhas looked as if they accepted everything about who they were. Depending on the moment, I vacillated between hopeful and hopeless, but I learned if I hung on long enough, hope will return, even if just a flicker.
After weeks of contemplating drowning myself in the bathtub, I’d paint or look out at the still reflection of the Puget Sound or hear the sound of mom’s voice telling me that she loved me, and I’d believe I could be better again. I found a psychotherapist who did more than let me talk. With her, I also learned to tap on acupressure points to release trauma.
After two long years, the VA ended up approving my claim for 100% disability, which finally offered a small financial cushion.
Around that time, I went to D.C. with Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit for women veterans, where I shared my story with members of Congress and their staff, and advocated for changing the laws regarding sexual assault in the military. Eventually, I ended up on the local news sharing my story as an activist. Next, I was invited to speak at a press conference with Senator Patti Murray, then on CNN, and many more outlets after that. Even though I felt invigorated knowing my trauma had a bigger purpose than my own suffering, sharing about sexual harassment assault so publicly brought up shame.
Not long after, I met a man named Tom through a personal growth company and we fell in love fast.
“Why would you choose to love someone so damaged?” I asked him just a few months into our relationship. “You’re not damaged — you’re ferocious about your growth,” Tom told me. “I admire that. When I want something, I’m patient. I’d pour water on a rock until it would turn to sand. But you, you’ll grind a rock into sand.”
Now that the years have turned to decades, I continue to remain focused on my healing. I attend therapy, take hot yoga classes, keep up my daily gratitude practice, and work with an energy healer. My symptoms have improved. I can cry. I’m able to sleep through most nights.
Tom and I had two children, Ruth and Ernie. Being a mom brought new purpose into my life. I’ve learned to be softer with myself when I struggle, the way I’m gentle with my children when they struggle. When life gets difficult, I hang on knowing I can get through it.
Sadly, Tom and I recently divorced after nine years of marriage.
Since driving into Iraq all those years ago, life has been one struggle after another for me. Living with PTSD has taught me more about grit than war ever did. Most Americans don’t know how war can shatter a life and make it feel near impossible to find happiness again without putting in significant time and intervention into their healing. Most Americans don’t know the pervasiveness of Military Sexual Trauma; they don’t know that change is still needed.
We need better resources for veterans — period. Our government asked us to serve and we did. We did things that most people will never do, and saw things that most people can never imagine, and it changed us. It damaged us. Now that we’re back, they need to take care of us.
For now, I choose to focus on what makes me happy, including my children, and the blessing it is to be alive and to be a mom. I don’t have the life I dreamed I’d have, but I have been given the gift of time, that there’s still a chance for me.
Nichole Crawford is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq. She has been a powerful voice for the #MeToo movement and has been featured on CNN Live, NPR, Vice News, and the lawn of the pentagon with a megaphone and shaky hands. She has an M.Ed. in Counseling & Human Relations and is currently working on completing her memoir “Pretty Young Soldier” and recently relaunched her app, Gratitude Morning. To date, she considers her biggest accomplishment being a mom to Ruth (8) and Ernie (6).