After a routine dorm inspection, my superior told me there was someone on the line she wanted me to talk to. She heard I would be heading to Travis Air Force Base in California after graduating and happened to be friends with my future boss.
After the call ended, she smiled coyly and said, “He really likes black women. He’s gonna love you.”
At 19, I enlisted in the Air Force without contemplation. I was raised in the military. My grandfathers served in the Army and my father retired from the Navy. After ending a volatile relationship with my high school sweetheart and losing my new job unexpectedly, I longed for stability.
I joined the military expecting a guaranteed paycheck, travel, health benefits and the opportunity to continue my education. I planned to serve one enlistment then take advantage of the G.I. Bill’s tuition assistance to finish college after getting out.
I quickly realized the military was not a good fit for me. Boot camp is ground zero for psychological reprogramming, a place to break new recruits down mentally and emotionally to “rebuild” them into war machines. I endured marching in extreme Texas summer heat in full fatigues, the pressure of routine inspections and monotonous basic training classes, but I hated the constant war propaganda, threats and verbal assaults.
When I mentioned my desire to go home, a colleague advised me to revisit the idea after graduation.
“They will punish you by keeping you here four times longer than you would be here if you just stuck it out,” she warned.
Airmen processing out for any reason were held in a militarized purgatory before being released to go home. I felt trapped, but resolved to make it to technical school.
After completing a dull 8-month stint in meteorological training school, I was set to integrate into an all-male weather station at Travis Air Force base. I was anxious to start two weeks of leave and explore California before reporting back to the base for work. Before I left the base, I stopped by the weather station to meet my boss. When I met my him – a homely, white, balding, 40-something divorcee and single father of two – I thought back to our awkward phone introduction and dismissed it as a bad joke.
After my vacation ended, I reported to duty and tried adjusting to a male-dominated environment where profanity and crude sexist jokes were the norm. I grew to hate working alongside my station chief.
He controlled the schedule, so we worked together frequently. I let his flirtatious jokes fall flat, hoping that would get across the message that I had zero interest in pursuing anything outside of a professional relationship. As a weather observer, my job was to spend 10 minutes collecting meteorological data from machines, observing the clouds from the tower and disseminating a brief report once per hour. The rest of the shift was spent killing time. I began taking long bathroom breaks to avoid conversation.
He got the hint, and I grew to know him as a vindictive and misogynistic man. He began to criticize everything I did and spoke to me in a way that felt more abusive than corrective.
His behavior grew more controlling. He began inventing excuses to keep me on base during my time off. When I expressed my disappointment over being denied an opportunity to visit Guam, a coworker said “You know [the chief] will never let you travel on assignment with another man.”
I attempted to enroll in courses at the local community college, but my weather chief refused to let me switch shifts with a coworker so I could make it to class on time. I grew hopeless. I joined the military to travel and finish my education. I never expected to be wind up in a workplace I hated with zero freedom.
Eventually I stopped caring and handled my resentment immaturely. I began to rebel. I did a number of foolish things that culminated in my separation from the military.
When I was asked to re-enlist in exchange for a promotion because the station was understaffed, I emphatically refused. I longed to live the regular life of a college student in a dorm where I felt safe and my supervisor could not show up and try to force his way into my room if I did not show up for work (oh yeah, that happened too).
I received a general discharge under honorable conditions. Deep down I felt relief, but I was sad I left the military because I let someone else get the best of me. For his part, my weather chief was transferred to a different duty station.
The military has long been plagued by incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment, yet people are not talking openly about it. When military members are sexually harassed and sexually violated, we have nowhere to turn. Our only recourse is report the abuse to our chain-of-command, complaining to the same people we know are friends with the perpetrators. The military justice system is set up to protect abusers, not victims that are often of lower-rank and without power.
I never felt more powerless than when I was in the military. It took me years to recognize that it was an oppressive environment where I was destined to fail. It was wrong for me to be forewarned of my supervisor’s sexual proclivities and considered his de facto playmate because of his preference for black women. I had a right to report to work without feeling like prey. I had a right to block his advances and not be penalized for it.