As a senior leader in the Army Reserve, I am trained to be a warrior and to be strong. I am trained to be able to deploy at all times and lead my troops to the Army Standard. I am trained to not show weakness and if I do show any sign of weakness or emotion, I am told to suck it up or get over it.
So, when I hear these words constantly, it is ingrained in me that I cannot cry or have a weak moment because I do not want my soldiers, peers, or leaders to think I am not capable of doing my job; so, with everything I am going through at home or personally, I suffer in silence. The first time I figured out that I needed to suffer in silence and not risk my career was the year of 2010.
This was not only the year that I had just returned back from a year-long deployment, but it was also the year that I had my first incident with domestic violence. To be quite honest, I have blocked that incident from my mind for years and tried not to think about it, and even writing this blog today, it triggers something inside me and tears actually begin to flow. All I remember from that day was getting into an argument with my now ex-husband and being punched in my eye two or three times until I was hovered on the floor crying.
Of course, most people would say, Roweena, go to the hospital and get help, but he made sure this did not happen and kept me inside for two to three days while the swelling went down. You would have thought hey, Roweena, you are in the Army Reserve, go report it and have him arrested; but it is not always that simple when you are a survivor of domestic violence and when you are in the military.
When you are in the military, you have to deal with so many factors that survivors who have never served would not even begin to understand. I have never reported because I did not want to risk losing my clearance, my job, or even my respect from my Soldiers. How can I train Soldiers to be strong and show no weakness; all the while feeling like I am weak and helpless in my own home. It wouldn’t make sense; so I continued to suffer in silence for those next few days. I never reported this incident or said anything and a week later, I showed up to my Army Reserve Unit ready to train and lead for the day. I acted as if nothing had ever happened and for the next few years, that is how I would continue to act. I am a Soldier, a Warrior, and, per my military training, I cannot and will not show weakness … So from this first incident, I learned to keep my suffering in silence.
When the abuse first began, I did not want anyone to know; military members, close friends or family members. The silence I kept for years allowed me to feel vulnerable, weak, and not worthy of love. I would portray myself as a strong, confident woman on the outside, but on the inside, I was dying. I would report to my military training and lead Soldiers during the day, but at night, I would dread coming home and lock myself in the extra bedroom just to get away from it all.
I want the military to know that domestic violence in the military is real! The military continues to be so focused on its overall mission that it forgets about the individual. There are women and men out there in the military who are serving (or veterans who have served) who continue to suffer in silence because they believe that their leadership will not believe them. There are those still serving who do not report because they don't want to risk losing that promotion, that award, their security clearance, or even their status as a strong leader who can show no weakness. Sad, right? But it’s true.
Survivors in the military face challenges that those who have never served could think of ; do we risk losing our careers or do we seek help and report? I can tell you, unfortunately, career is often chosen. While we are making small steps by having Interpersonal Violence Coordinators located at each VA Center, and the Military Family Violence Prevention Act that is still in the works and being passed through Congress, we can definitely do more. We can make sure that each military member is aware of the resources that are out there for survivors of domestic violence. This includes National Guard, Reserves, and Active Duty. Many of the programs out there right now are only geared towards active duty service members and even with those, they are not very effective.
I know that for myself, the only way I have been able to make and affect change is by using my voice and advocating with other veterans, military members and military spouses, which is why I founded We Believe You SOS (Supporting Our Survivors) in 2020. We strive to advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault assault military and veteran survivors as well as military spouses. We want them to know that when no one else believes you, we believe you; when no one advocates for you or you can’t use your voice,we will be there to support. We are still in the final stages of becoming a certified non profit, but we want to continue to let the world know that sexual assault and domestic violence is real in the military community.
It seems as if the military will only become proactive once an incident occurs; but if we as survivors and advocates continue to use our voices for change, then maybe we can prevent these incidents from happening. We have to continue to raise our voices not only for ourselves and our own experiences, but for that young Soldier who may want to leave an abusive partner but not know where to go; or that veteran who doesn't think they have any options to get help because they are no longer serving.
It is time for us to reduce the stigma of “suffering in silence” and reporting being a sign of weakness and use our voice to affect the change that we want to see.
Roweena Arasah is a 20 year veteran who served in the Army Reserve. She is the mother of two girls and a Human Resource Specialist for the Department of the Army.
She is the founder of We Believe You SOS where she strives to support military members, veterans, and military spouse survivors of domestic and sexual assault. She serves as the membership chair for Women Veterans Interactive Capitol Collaborative Chapter, a member of Alpha Gamma Xi Military Sorority and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. She also recently accepted a position to serve on the board of directors for Hope Works of Howard County.
Her mission is to use her voice not only to heal others, but to help with her own healing journey as a veteran survivor of domestic violence.