Rape of 23 years ago haunts ex-Navy woman Aberdeen revelations lead former WAVE to discuss attack


Twenty-three years after that chilly night at a Navy training center on Lake Michigan, the memory of rape still can incapacitate Sidney Welles.

Just last week, as she lay in the dark, tight confines of an MRI scanner for a medical test, panic engulfed her. It all came back: the rough cinder-block wall and cold linoleum floor of the deserted classroom building; the three male drinking companions whose names she barely knew; the dark-haired one holding her down, saying, "We bought you all that booze. You owe us," while another declared, "No one's going to believe you. We outrank you."

Welles, 44, of Calvert County says she remained silent for years because she accepted that claim. She was young, frightened and lost in the military world she had entered a few months before.

"I was a whiny little female who'd been drinking," she says. "I was afraid of not being believed."

The Army's clamorous investigation of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen Proving Ground and other posts has lifted a corner of the veil covering a quiet tragedy that has unfolded over many decades. Wherever women have served in the military, some male superiors have assaulted them and counted on the power of rank to get away with it.

There are signs that the incidence of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen may not be dramatically greater than at other Army posts. Of 805 recent Army hot-line calls that investigators are pursuing, 686 reported misconduct at other installations.

And a 1995 Defense Department survey of military women shows that the problem exists across the military, though sexual assault is slightly more prevalent in the Marines and the Army than the Air Force or the Navy, where training begun after the 1991 Tailhook affair has had an impact. It's also clear that the problem is not new; callers to the Army hot line have reported assaults dating to World War II.

Of the female patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore who responded to a survey, about one in five said they had been raped while on active duty, according to a study published in Military Medicine. Only a third of those who suffered rape or other abuse said they had ever received counseling.

"We were finding all these women coming in who were chronically sick -- pelvic pain, headaches, massive depression -- and no one ever got better," says Andrea S. Van Horn, women veterans coordinator at the Baltimore VA and a co-author of the ** study. When counselors asked about sexual assault, they found a vast, unrecognized cause for the complaints.

The news from Aberdeen stirred the memories of some of those victims. For instance, Welles first told her parents about her 1973 rape only after the Aberdeen news broke last month. Several female veterans sought help at the Baltimore VA for the first time, including a 55-year-old woman assaulted in the Navy 25 years ago and a 35-year-old woman assaulted in the Army 10 years ago.

"Our message is: Once you get into therapy, you do get better," says Van Horn, 49, a nurse practitioner. "This is not something you have to live with."

There are no reliable data on whether rape occurs more frequently in the military than outside it. But power relationships in the armed forces can make women more vulnerable to sexual pressure and assault and even more reluctant than civilian women to report it, experts say.

Women in uniform "live, eat and breathe the military," says D'Ann Campbell, a historian at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee who studies women and the military. "You can't go home. You have no retreat, no recourse. In the Army, a woman has very few options."

Welles, the daughter of Marine Corps veterans from the Boston area, signed up for the Navy in 1972, looking for a career in health care. After basic training in Orlando, Fla., she reported for advanced training at the Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Ill.

Women faced "a quiet hostility," Welles recalls. She and her colleagues were WAVES -- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service -- and a popular saying was that the men were there "to ride the WAVES."

But she and her two roommates enjoyed the freedom of socializing away from home. At 20, Welles was under the legal drinking age -- and proud she could outdrink her friends.

The rape occurred after a long night of Bacardi and Coke to celebrate the men's graduation from Great Lakes' school for machinists' mates. The three men offered to walk the tipsy Welles back to her barracks. One man said he had to stop in an empty building to use the bathroom; all four went inside, and the rape followed.

Welles can't remember what happened after the first man raped her; to this day, she's not certain whether the others assaulted her. Somehow she got back to her room, where a concerned roommate asked what was wrong. "Nothing," she lied, before getting in the shower, scrubbing to erase what had happened.

Why didn't she tell anyone?

Welles, a thoughtful woman with wire-rimmed glasses and short, red-brown hair, leans back in the cozy, book-lined trailer she shares with five cats and a dog in the woods near Prince Frederick.

"These guys were 3rd class petty officers -- E-4s," she says. "I was a hospital apprentice, an E-2." It would be her word against the word of three men, all her senior. She would have to admit that she had been drinking illegally.

"I was terrified, and I felt ashamed," she says.

She tried to move on with her life, but the rape pursued her. She suffered violent mood swings. She couldn't sleep. As she worked in Navy medical clinics in Florida and on Guam, her drinking grew heavier, until she completed a 90-day treatment program in 1977. (She's been sober since.) But even to her alcoholism counselors, she never breathed a word about rape.

In 1978, when a rape victim came into the Guam clinic, she refused to assist the treating doctor. Asked by the head nurse to explain herself, she finally revealed that she had been assaulted.

The older woman urged her to get counseling at her next post, the Naval Academy in Annapolis. But Welles didn't do it. "I thought I had it handled," she says.

She found out how wrong she was one day in 1986. She'd left the Navy in 1982 and worked as a police officer and a cardiac technician. Now she was training for a job as advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse.

As the trainer wrote on a board the symptoms of "Post-Traumatic Rape Syndrome," Welles felt the chill of recognition: Sleep disturbances. Difficulty maintaining long-term intimate relationships. Fear of trusting others. Alcohol and drug abuse.

As the trainer talked, Welles says, "The walls were closing in, I was getting panicky, I was gripping my chair. At break time, I bolted out the back door in tears and sat there holding myself."

Finally, she got counseling. She came to accept emotionally what she had long known intellectually: "The rape wasn't my fault."

Since then, Welles has worked as an addictions counselor and volunteered as an emergency medical technician; now she's studying for a psychology degree at Bowie State University.

She wonders how things might have been different had she turned down the sailors' offer to accompany her that night. "I think I might be in my own house, with a family," she says. "I think my career might have gone better."

Welles hopes the investigation sparked by Aberdeen will be a breakthrough, a chance to change a culture in which assault continues and reporting is discouraged. Her decision to speak publicly is her contribution, she says.

Yet when asked what she would do if she could go back to Great Lakes, to the days after the rape, Welles' response testifies to the power of the military culture. She explains the grapevine that links every post, the emphasis on unit loyalty, the ostracism of those who report a colleague.

"If I had to make that decision again, I'd get help sooner," Welles says. "But, you know, I probably wouldn't turn them in."

Pub Date: 12/05/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad