After months of training after entering the Army, Jennifer Wells was ready to receive orders to deploy to Iraq.
“I was anxious and nervous, but I was excited too,” she said. “That’s why I joined. The whole reason to serve your country, and the military’s primary mission, is to deploy.”
Just two months into her deployment, her world came crashing down after an attack on the base she never expected, and she said she was the target.
“I sat down and all of a sudden he leaned in, kissed me and I pulled away. That was not the purpose of my visit,” Wells explained. “Took me by surprise. And he was much larger than me. So from there, he basically overpowered me.”
She said she had gone to another soldier’s living quarters to borrow some DVDs. It was the middle of a very hot day deployed in the desert terrain, and she was looking for something to watch to pass the time.
“He had mentioned that he had like 400 or 500 DVDs, movies, and said I could borrow some,” she said.
The conversation was in a group of several other soldiers who regularly borrowed movies.
“It was hard for me to process. I mean, all that's happening. One minute, I'm coming over to borrow a movie, and then I'm fighting. And I mean, he overpowered me and, eventually, you know, covered up my mouth. So I couldn't scream, and he didn't want to hear me talk,” she said.
She said she repeatedly told him no, but he continued to attack her. When it ended, she said she had repeated that she didn’t want the sexual encounter.
“I was visibly upset, of course, and he asked if I was okay, which blew my mind. And I was like, 'No, I'm not okay.' And he was like, 'You didn't want that?' And I was like, 'No, I didn't.' And I said that. He's like, 'Well, I thought you liked me. I thought that's why you came here. When we talked about the movies, you were smiling at me,'” Wells said.
She said she got up, left and went and took a long shower and a bunch of birth control pills to prevent a possible pregnancy. The attack was over, but now the concern was what to do about it, if anything.
“I just didn't trust the leadership,” Wells said.
She also said she began to "victim blame" and was concerned that if she did report it, the command would just send her home, not allowing her to finish her deployment.
Her story is not rare. A Department of Defense report in April 2020 shows 7,825 sexual assaults reporeted in fiscal year 2019, a 3 percent increase year over year, according to the report data. The number reflects both men and women who were sexually assaulted.
It’s estimated by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) that one in four women report military sexual trauma to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
For Wells, it wasn’t until after her time in the Army came to an end and she paid a visit to the Cincinnati VA Medical Center women’s clinic, where she mentioned anything about the rape.
“I was able to talk to them," she said. "I was comfortable. I don't know. For me, that was actually the first step in recovery."
Back in October 2018, Homefront profiled the VA's Women Veterans Health center and spoke with Women Veterans Program Manager Shirley May about the VA changes toward women and their medical needs.
“When you’re walking into a predominantly male environment and you yourself were a victim of military sexual trauma and suffer from PTSD, it takes a lot of effort to walk through the halls with all men,” May said.
She said the location of the women’s clinic at the Cincinnati VA Medical center near the main entrance is meant to do one thing.
“So women can walk right into the center, for them to feel more comfortable,” May said.
Wells now speaks about her attack.
“We may not realize it, how it affects our life, every day. But it does,” Wells said.
She said she hopes by telling her story, it will encourage other women to find their own voice. She emphasizes that speaking up and reporting such abuse isn’t a sign of weakness -- it’s a sign of strength.
“The best way to get through it is to open up and talk about it, and it's really the only way to start healing, is to bring it up. It can be painful, and it can be difficult, but really, it's never too late to talk about it,” Wells said.
For more assistance to help with a sexual assault you experienced while serving, here are some resources: