A Black Eye and a Purple Heart This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

July 29, 2014
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There's a photo in my phone, taken last Christmas at Rockefeller Center, of three young officers in the United States Navy. The man on my right is clad in his dress whites, sporting the insignia of a petty officer third class on his arm. His other arm is playfully draped around my shoulder as though it had rested there a million times in the aftermath of gunfire. With a touch of low saturation and a speckled filter, we could have passed for old comrades aboard the USS South Dakota at Guadalcanal. His eyes bear a dauntless spark, complemented by an affable but furtive grin, like he's just broken his buddies out of the brig. He looks like a Jayton.

Six thousand, seven hundred and seventeen American soldiers died in the War on Terror. Yet if Jayton returns to battle this year, he's more likely to be raped by a fellow seaman than to die in a combat zone.

I used to dream of piloting a fighter aircraft, careening over cities with a view from the cockpit that spanned millions of convivial household gatherings. I'd weave a series of funky, amorphous contrails in the crimson skyline, the kind I used to point to and ask my grandpa about as a kid. I'd grown up with my nose buried in the pages of autobiographies, sinking into the cockpits of combat paragons like Geoffrey Wellum, Roland Garros, and Manfred von Richthofen. I wanted to see as they saw and feel as they felt.

This summer, I applied for a position as a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol's Hanscom Composite Squadron. It's an Air Force auxiliary program that allows young adults to engage in physical training, rescue missions, education in aerospace and piloting, debates, and opportunities to meet with rising military officials.

When I think of the United States Armed Forces, I think of the three-page essay I painstakingly wrote to convince my mother to let me join the Civil Air Patrol. I think of the stack of applications. I think of the searing pain of muscles, taxed by the workout routines I practiced persistently in order to exceed the President's Challenge and qualify for a promotion. I think of the lines of codes and aircraft parts we all uttered between footsteps, singeing them into our memories for upcoming exams. I think of the grin on my friend Christopher's face the first time he soloed in a Cessna 182, and how he must have crafted a vision of his future that day.

Of the average of 322,000 people enlisting in the U.S. military yearly, 210,000 enlisted after participating in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in high school. Two hundred and ten thousand teenagers like me pictured the military as part of their lives. The JROTC program facilitates military training for teens who have developed an interest in the armed forces. The military is represented to thousands of teenagers as the epitome of integrity, honor, and courage, but for decades it has carried with it a behemothic price to pay. Because they are subject to the military's internal legal system, the 95,000 sexual assault victims (since 2006, as reported by the Department of Defense) have had to take their cases to their own chains of command – members of which were, in most instances, responsible for the assaults.

Now, as a teenager, a sexual assault victim, and a member of the recruiters' target audience, I can't shed from my mind the Pentagon study conducted last year that revealed 90 percent of sexual assault victims in the military were not only prohibited from seeking legal assistance but were dishonorably discharged, rendering them ineligible for veterans' benefits. This is what the next generation's hard work will compensate for. One such victim, assaulted by someone in her chain of command, is Kori Cioca. She now lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, bilateral disc displacement, and facial nerve damage. None of these victims were viewed as deserving a Purple Heart for injury during service, and this injustice will not change without Congress's enforcement of a responsible system of prosecution outside the chain of command.

I can't help but wonder: How can we win a war against a foreign foe if we can't confront this war within our own ranks?

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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