Phoenix Rising: Becoming a Survivor

Tiffany Chinn is a mother, wife, and Navy Veteran.  She’s currently an insurance agent, but her deeper passions lie in being the creator of the Veteran Love Foundation, which provides meals, cooking lessons, and education around healthy living to Veterans – which she’s hopes to do full-time someday. Tiffany is married with 2 children, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and 2 bunnies. In her free time she enjoys hiking, playing games, reading and creating recipes. She’s been a member of Returning Veterans of Diablo Valley since July, 2019.

It’s November 6th, 1993, and I’m enjoying a beautiful evening on base in San Diego, California. I’m 19 years old – out with shipmates dancing and having a few drinks at the club. Feeling tired as the night progressed, I decided to walk back to the ship early without my friends. It was raining sporadically that week, like it often does, so I was looking down towards the concrete, dodging puddles in the parking lot. What happened next was the most traumatic event of my life and would alter it forever. I was grabbed from behind and thrown against a car as my head slammed into the side of a door. Warm blood streams down my forehead and a punch lands deep in my gut, slapped twice across the face, and choked until I nearly blackout. I’m on the ground, on my back, with my arms pinned underneath me, as he presses his knees into my thighs, yanks my skirt up, and rips my underwear off. I’m being raped. I went into shock – there, but not really. As I write, I can remember the smell of his cologne, mixed with blood, sweat, rain, mud, and finally, semen. When it was over, I laid in the mud and sobbed between cars – frozen and terrified.

After what seemed like hours, I stood up, straightened my tattered clothes, and leaned over to pick up my torn underwear – shoving them in my pocket. I wiped myself off with scraped and bleeding hands, and somehow garnered the strength to continue the walk back. I was numb. As I neared the entrance to the ship, I dug down and pretended like nothing happened. When I peeked up, the Officer on Deck asked, “Why are you dirty and bleeding?” “Oh, I tripped on my way home” I quipped, and then proceeded immediately to the berthing area. I felt ashamed that I was unable to protect myself and thought that it was my fault for wearing a short skirt and drinking. I took a long and scolding hot shower in an attempt to “wash it all away”, yet I couldn’t stop shivering and presumed I would get in trouble for exceeding the five-minute time limit. The water did turn off, but kicked back on after I waited a very long minute. I felt glad to be alone because I couldn’t bear another person learning of what happened. “It was my fault, after all”, I reasoned. I wrapped myself in a towel, sat down for a moment, and then one of my shipmates walked in. She knew instantly something happened, “What happened to you?” “Nothing.” I replied. She pressed, “clearly something, you’re shaking, bleeding and bruised all over.” I looked down at my battered legs and then told her everything. She soon convinced me to go the Master at Arms on duty to report the incident. I got dressed and made the long walk – each step heavier and more painful than the last. My heart hurt, my body ached, and I was full of fear, doubt, shame, and negative inner dialogue. He was not happy to see me and quickly ordered my friend to leave. She squeezed my hand, as if to leave some part of herself with me. The officer begrudgingly took my statement, harped on me for not reporting the incident the moment I came aboard, and berated me for showering. “Aren’t you smarter than that?” He said.  He sent me to medical, where I was instructed to undress for an exam and photographs. After being raped, this felt even further exposing. As morning fell, I was escorted to base security, and asked to tell the story all over again to a room full of officers and enlisted. It was embarrassing and further traumatizing. What I needed was a chance to breath, some emotional and psychological support, and sleep – since I was extremely tired, aching from the core, and sore. I remember a sailor leaning over to one near him and saying, “shouldn’t she be crying?” His insensitivity knew no bounds. What he didn’t realize was that because I was beaten, nearly killed it felt, and raped, I detached from my emotions.  Dissociated, standing next to my body, watching a horrible movie for which I could not stop. I sat in a room for hours pouring over thousands of photos of men on base, expected to find my attacker. While I couldn’t recall his face, I did remember his smell, hand, Levi’s, and the speed of his pants flinging open in one movement. Yet there I sat, for countless hours and then days, confusedly glossing over thousands of photos.  Futile. One week after the horrific night I was raped, I began to feel intense pain, and would soon experience even further trauma.  I learned from doctors that the rapist gave me herpes. They prescribed me medication and back I went to continue reviewing photos.

By this time, I was removed from ship, isolated from friends, and eating by myself. I was breaking down, my soul was hurting, and at one point, simply couldn’t take it anymore. I cracked. I wanted this to be over and to have my life back – I didn’t have capacity to be overly concerned with justice at the time. I felt trapped, exhausted, and in serious pain. I wanted “my captors” to give up, so, similar to a prisoner giving a false confession to escape harsh punishment or torture, I looked at one photo and said, “I think this might be him.” I prayed that the man had an alibi and didn’t consider what would happen if he didn’t. They quickly tracked him down and ordered a lined up so we could be sure. Staring at men that all looked similar, I said, “I don’t know, maybe number 4?” It happened to be the same person from the photo, yet thankfully he had an alibi.  I couldn’t remember the face of the rapist, yet it felt as if I was expected to, and that it was not OK to not know. I think we all reasoned that, “If I couldn’t confidently identify someone, then perhaps it didn’t really happen.” When I was finally allowed back on ship, I thought I would be safe and could start to find my way forward –  yet that is not what happened.  Instead, I faced countless questions and endless harassment.

I would soon learn that the superior of the person I wrongly identified was pressing charges against me for defamation of character. Everything that followed would become a haze. In court, I pleaded with the judge that I was exhausted, in intense pain, and under immense pressure from investigators to identify someone. Somehow, despite being the one who endured one of the most sadistic acts on the planet just a few weeks prior, I admitted to guilt in all of this.  Numerous character references read in court could not stop the forty-five day prison sentence handed down. Let’s just consider: a month after I was savagely raped I was headed to prison.  A rush of overwhelming shame again took me under. “I did this. I brought this on.” I thought. In retrospect, how is it that Navy officials didn’t know that what I needed was psychological and emotional support after the incident? Why was I treated like a POW, pressed to the brink of exhaustion to provide information that I admitted to not remembering? I was essentially forced to identify a suspect. Did they think that making me incessantly pour over thousands of images would somehow jog my memory? It only served to confuse and wear me down even more than I already was.   I didn’t tell my parents what was happening with me, despite needing them the most. They would soon catch on though once they realized I was only calling them collect once per week. My cellmate convinced me to tell them everything, so I did. They were in disbelief and extremely angry about how I was being treated. When I reached out to a counselor for help while in prison, they didn’t listen nor care, and suggested I voluntarily discharge from the Navy, go home, and “start over.” By this point, I was so broken that I followed their inept and misguided “advice.”

Writing about this experience was and is extremely difficult. For two decades after my Naval service, I never spoke about it, pushed it down, and thought I could lock it up and not deal with it. As a result, I gained more than a hundred pounds, bounced around to several unhealthy relationships, was an emotional mess, always drank when socializing, and ultimately stopped having sex – due to the STD and memories that would come up.  It was only when I got professional help that I began to realize how unjustly I was treated during that time, and how my life was so deeply altered because of it. I’m so grateful for my dear friend, Jenna, who encouraged me for five years to apply for VA benefits. I don’t think I would have ever confronted and dealt with this experience without her presence. It has been an extremely arduous and challenging journey to find, forgive, and love myself again – and to confidently believe that I am worthy. At times, it can be a moment-to-moment process, where I struggle with emotional and psychological trauma caused by the incident. I do know one thing for certain though, which is: I will not give up anymore. I will not let this experience take me under. I am taking my life back, because it does not belong to anyone else, but me. I grow stronger each day.  I survived.