About 25 people stood on the corner of State Circle and Francis Street in Annapolis, their lime green shirts a sharp contrast to their old brown and red Capitol Strategies building.
Many held signs with statements such as I am Vanessa Guillen or justice for Vanessa. The lime green shirts said #IAmVanessaGuillen on the front and “My Sister’s Keeper” on the back.
They gathered less than a mile from the Naval Academy and about 20 miles from Fort George G. Meade.
The group, almost all women, were part of a larger protest happening across the country. Our Sister’s Keeper Movement held protests in 19 locations as well as a virtual protest to raise awareness of military sexual trauma, sometimes referred to by the acronym MST.
After Guillen went missing, and even more so after her death, military members came forward to share their story with #IAmVanessaGuillen or #WeAreVanessaGuillen. It has led to a #MeToo movement for the military, with members also raising awareness of others who have died from or after sexual violence.
The group gathered in Annapolis Saturday to share their stories and use their voices because Guillen no longer can, Samantha Payne, one of the organizers, said.
“It’s just I think there have been so many people that have been silent for so long, and now I think they’re just tired and they’re ready for this just to get better for the military members,” Payne said before the protest.
The movement has some demands, including having a civilian counterpart investigate sexual violence and determine if charges should be applied. Another demand would allow victim’s names to be shielded during the investigation to avoid retaliation.
Beyond reading the demands and the statistics of military sexual trauma — one out of three women in the military will experience military sexual trauma, which is far worse than the general public, said organizer Katie Huguenin — the event gave women who experienced sexual violence a chance to speak.
Like Payne, who read a poem she wrote about her experience with military sexual violence.
Or Chelsea, who asked that her last name not be used. She talked about being sexually assaulted and bullied when she tried to report it. On the left side of her body, she wrote all the statements that she heard, such as “Why did you wait so long?”
The right side of her body was all the statements she knows to be true now like she is loved.
Chelsea was assaulted early on in her military career, she said. Instead of people taking care of her and helping her, they bullied her into silence. Those bullies were other women, she said.
In lieu of reporting, she became a sexual assault victim advocate and was able to build an environment where sexual assault and harassment was not tolerated.
“All the work I had done so people could speak out seemed to go away when it came to me,” she said.
There was one woman in the military’s leadership who did listen to her story and helped her, Chelsea said to the crowd.
Chelsea came to the rally to continue to fight for herself and other survivors of military sexual trauma.
“I’m here to make a ruckus because I’m not going to be quiet anymore,” she said.
Military sexual trauma does not always need to be assault. It can come in the form of harassment, too. As it did for Emily Mandarich, who spoke about how another chief sexually harassed her while she was out with the other chiefs one night.
Chelsea and Mandarich’s stories were echoed by other speakers at the rally.
The Our Sister’s Keeper Movement is raising awareness of military sexual trauma, but the movement needs allies, Payne said.
While the group was mostly women, there were two men who attended to support the women, many of whom are active duty.
And the movement needs partners within the general public. They can speak with their vote, Mandarich said.
Or call their senators, as the military is handled on the federal level, Chelsea said.
The military members stand up to protect the country, Payne said. The survivors of military sexual trauma need civilians to stand up for them.
“I just feel like that we, that we need that same protection, like while we’re in the military, which is why we need the allies just to feel like we belong and to feel that our voices are heard,” Payne said. “If we say something to believe us.”
People are ready to listen, with some in the crowd feeling like those higher up now have to listen even if they are not ready. Others are doing so willingly.
This listening needs to happen across all branches of the military.
“[People are] not only ready to listen but are ready to take action,” Huguenin said.
Mandarich said that while people are ready to listen to the survivors, she is “cautiously optimistic” about change. This is not the first time people have spoken out about military sexual trauma.