Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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David Swanson

David Swanson is a longtime peace and justice activist and author of 'War Is a Lie'

October 25th, 2011 5:08 PM

US Army Assaults Its Biggest Fan

One of the most valuable benefits of putting political action into the form of nonviolent encampments is that we learn each other's stories as we occupy our public parks and squares. Here's a story from the October2011 occupation in Freedom Plaza, Washington, D.C. There are many more, and we'd like to hear yours when you join us.

Aristine Maharry is 29 years old and now lives in Freedom Plaza. She grew up in a very military family, with members of her family having participated in every major U.S. war going back to the war for independence, and with members of every generation having joined the military.

Maharry's family did not encourage her to aspire to a military career, but -- as in many such stories I've heard -- actions spoke more loudly than words. Maharry was proud of her father's military experience. She hoped from a very young age to join the U.S. Army. She grew up playing at army with her half-brothers. They would flip the couch on its side and toss pretend grenades. She loved the board game Risk. The biggest holiday in Aristine's family was the Fourth of July. She doesn't say she bled red white and blue. She says she bled green, Army green. She wanted to serve her country and other people. She was willing to die for her country. She was proud of her country.

Aristine was a good student and a good athlete. At age 7 she tested with an IQ of 185. She was placed in gifted and talented classes in all of the many public schools she attended. She got good grades, ran track, and was president of the Future Business Leaders of America at West Potomac High School in Northern Virginia, where at 16 she dual enrolled at George Mason University. She graduated from high school at 18 in the year 2000, was married the next January and pregnant in February.

Aristine knew that the military would be reluctant to enlist a mother of a child under 1 year of age. She hoped to take part in the Green to Gold program, enlisting and eventually becoming an officer. Her own father had dropped out of college to enlist and fight in Vietnam. She admired that history. However, when her first son was nine months old, Aristine became pregnant again. She headed to the recruiter's office when her second son turned one in May 2004. She had a family and a good job in management training new personnel in the pharmacy department of Liberty Medical Supply in Florida. But recruiters' job is to recruit, and Maharry didn't require any persuading.

She arranged to train at the same camp her father had trained at, Fort Leonardwood in Missouri. She headed there in December 2004, leaving behind a husband and two little boys for the holidays. Aristine says it was a very sad time for her, very difficult, and also very cold in Missouri. But, she thought to herself: "All the other soldiers have families too. They do it. I'm not different. I can serve too. I want to do my part as an American." She signed up to become a combat medic, hoping to care for injured soldiers.

The first few weeks of training in January were extremely hard, she says: lots of pushups, not a lot of sleep, but a great deal of hostility from drill sergeants conditioning recruits to face hostility in battle, struggling with their own post-traumatic stress, or simply acting out their sadism. Aristine characterized it as "ten times worse than in the movies." She was in Charlie Company, Third Battalion, 10th Unit, 4th Platoon. Her platoon had four drill sergeants, three of them male named Davis, Harris, and something like Fontana (she doesn't remember this name clearly), and one female drill sergeant named Gilliard.

The woman sergeant was not what you would call gentle and loving. Aristine witnessed Gilliard yank a male soldier across a desk and injure him. His offense had been to request a pen. Fontana (or whatever his exact name was) made Gilliard look sweet and delicate by comparison. He was shorter and meaner than the others, according to Maharry. She saw him slam a female private named Barr up against a wall.

Aristine is amazingly understanding of this abuse. The sergeants, she says, had just done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The training was their rest period between tours of combat. They were all, she believes, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Aristine's understanding this is even more amazing considering what happened next.

Aristine was doing pushups along with the other privates. It was dark. Fontana came up behind her and kicked her hard repeatedly in the pelvis. The next morning, with her 50-pound rucksack, Aristine was not able to keep up on the run in her usual way. One of the drill sergeants, Harris, told her she would have to report to "sick call."

That night, Private Barr came and got Maharry. The two of them went to the military police (MP) and told their stories of abuse. The MPs sent them right back without indicating that they would do anything at all. The reports that the MPs took down may or may not still exist among their records.

The next morning Aristine reported to sick call. Before she did, Gilliard whispered in her ear that she needed to say she had slipped on ice, which was a complete fabrication. An X-ray showed a fractured pelvis. Aristine was put in the Army hospital on the base from January 8, 2005 to February 1st or 2nd, immobilized in bed with a morphine drug for pain. She was then sent on 30-day convalescent leave with heavy pain killers. If she did not return after the 30 days, she was told, the Army would come and find her. Through the course of her initial processing and training, she had already been advised repeatedly that going AWOL (absent without official leave) was punishable by anything up to death.

Aristine says she was "terrified" and "scared to death." She didn't tell her husband what had happened, as she was afraid that if he raised the issue she would be punished when she returned to the Army. When she did return, she pleaded with a physical therapist not to send her back to the same unit. It turned out that it was standard practice not to do that. Aristine worked hard, she says, to recover fast in the Physical Therapy Rehabilitation Program (PTRP) because those who did not, the "hold-overs," would be kept in separate rooms in barracks with their units' drill sergeants and would often be raped. Aristine did not use the word "rape" but indicated sex that was unwanted. "Rape" or "command rape" is an accurate term.

Unfortunately, the First Sergeant for the same Company she had been in before came and requested that Aristine return to the same unit. She passed a test and was returned. Once back, she was kept in a separate room, but resisted the drill sergeants' attempts at sex, she says. A couple of female holdovers, she says, were also kept in private rooms. They would be taken out at night, and would cry endlessly when they were returned.

Aristine was now in the fourth week of training, with the same company, platoon, and drill sergeants (except for Fontana who was no longer there), but all new privates, her original group having long since graduated. Aristine was miserable, terrified, and "crying, crying, crying." "How," she asked herself, "could they send me back here?" The First Sergeant told her: "You'd better not open your mouth about what happened last time." Maharry was still on lots of pain medicine and suffering mental pain as well.

Privates are all assigned "battle buddies," and Aristine's was a man named Principe. Privates objected that she couldn't have a male battle buddy. The sergeants said that she could and that it happens in war. Luckily, Principe was a decent person, or -- perhaps more to the point -- a person who had not been in combat and was not placed in a command position. But Principe left early, during the eighth week. There was one more week to go.

During these later weeks of training, the drill sergeants were not as hard on the privates, and focused more on building camaraderie within the unit. They also brought the privates into the way the Army thinks. Drill Sergeant Davis said to whole platoon, as Aristine recalls: "It does not matter what happens in a room as long as two or more of you have the same story. That's the party line."

Aristine, like every private, slept with her weapon, knew its parts and how to assemble it, and gave it a name. Her gun was called "Blue." Among the chants used in training were "We are Charlie Company and we like to party: drink blood drink blood all night long," and another that began "Sharpen our machetes!"

Aristine was treated to particular abuse through these weeks. She was frequently awakened during the night and deprived of sleep. For weeks, she resisted the advances of the First Sergeant, Drill Sergeant Davis, and Drill Sergeant Kitchen. Aristine learned to sleep sitting straight up in the daytime.

During the final week, the First Sergeant called for her at night and said "We know what you did with your battle buddy" and "We know you're selling pain killers." He claimed that Principe had accused her of selling her pain killers. She knew that Principe would not have said that. She had no use for money in basic training, she desperately needed the pain killers, and the accusation named no party she'd sold to or any other details. There were no witnesses, and the accusation was false. There was never any trial or finding, just an accusation. The Army threatened to bring Aristine up on charges under Article 15 of the Universal Code of Military Justice. She refused to sign their forms, and they dropped the matter.

Aristine says that frequently she would cry as her Army superiors threatened her, repeatedly, for weeks. They would point out that she never received any letters in the mail. They claimed that nobody would know if they "took care of her." Remarks included "We know how to make people shut up" and "We can make you be quiet forever." Aristine says she took these as clear threats to kill her or imprison her, and that these threats were offered on multiple occasions.

Aristine injured her arm, and a doctor agreed not to treat her so that she could ship out, which was what she wanted: to escape Missouri.

Aristine's birth mother showed up out of the blue. She had been an Army Captain. She had also been a model for ROTC posters and "Babes of the Military" calendars. Aristine was reluctant to tell her mother the true story, terrified that the Army would find out she'd talked and kill her or lock her away in prison. So Aristine told her mother the things she'd seen done to other female privates. She told her mother the Army was trumping up charges to keep her quiet. Aristine's mother said she knew how it worked, and she kept quiet.

When I spoke with Aristine this week she said that she was still scared to be speaking about it. This is even more understandable considering the rest of the story.

After graduating, and being denied permission to walk in the graduation ceremony as punishment for the baseless accusation of selling drugs, Aristine shipped out to Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas. She was treated for her arm injury. She could not be sent on convalescent leave again so soon. Instead, she was sent to wait for a review by a medical board. Many she spoke with had been waiting two or more years for the medical board to review them. They could not leave for holidays or visit families. Aristine sank into depression. She felt unable to sit and do nothing, not to mention being constantly made fun of for not going to war.

She tried to switch from combat medic to a paperwork job that she could handle. She was told she was not fit for any duty until the medical board reviewed her case.

She tried to quit the Army with no benefits. They told her, she recounts: "Because we broke you, we have to fix you."

I asked "Like Iraq?"

Aristine: "Yeah, like Iraq."

A chaplain declined to help.

A physical therapist declined to help.

A woman, possibly named Rodriguez, told Aristine that if she "pulled the same s--- here as in basic" she would "personally hunt you down and take care of you."

Aristine went to a psychiatric clinic and said she was considering suicide. She really was. The clinic made her sign a statement that she would not kill herself. Then they sent her right back to hurry up and wait for the medical board.

Aristine left most of her possessions behind and went AWOL.

She was afraid to return to her family. She still does not want to face her father. She is deeply ashamed of having failed to succeed in the military. People had warned her she would fail. And she failed, or at least viewed it that way, even knowing that what was done to her was not her fault. She wished she'd listened to her colleagues at work who had told her "You're too pretty," and "Girls like you shouldn't join the military." She had taken those comments as insults to her pride. She now says they were right but didn't go far enough. "It's no place for anybody," she now concludes.

Before joining up, Aristine had contacted both of her parents. Her father had never spoken about Vietnam. He now said "I saw things in the Army that no one should ever be exposed to." He told her not to do it. She took that as fatherly protection and thought to herself "I'm stronger than he thinks." He had received medals in Vietnam, she points out, but he'd also returned with "shell shock" or PTSD. Loud sounds would cause him to throw something or hit someone. He suffered tunnel vision in crowded places, and Aristine says she had the same symptom for a while.

Aristine went AWOL on July 5th ("my independence day"). She went to Florida and picked up three jobs, and then a job in New York. But in New York in November 2006, she had a checkbook stolen and reported it to the police. She did not face prosecution for going AWOL. But she was required to report to Fort Knox in Kentucky and sign out, along with many others in her same position -- many women and men too, all suffering injuries, many from training and some from combat. They were made to put on Army uniforms and ordered about. She had to write out her story for a judge. She was told she could not speak with a judge. She was not told she could hire a lawyer. The Army may still have the report she wrote out. She was given a less than honorable discharge.

Aristine tried to reconcile with her husband. They tried counseling. She did not believe she could become pregnant anymore. But she did, and the pregnancy was very hard on her, her third son being born a month early. Doctors told her insurance would not cover problems related to military injuries. So Aristine went to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) and asked to change her discharge to honorable and to obtain health coverage. She again had to write down her whole story, and this time she left a copy with her birth mother. She was now advised that she could have had a lawyer at Fort Knox.

Aristine is now on her own, but has joined together with a growing crowd of activists opposing the entire direction in which our war economy is dragging our nation and the world. Many people are finding the strength to tell their stories, and finding power in joining them together with others'.

Aristine Maharry thinks the military should release injured people to their families and treat them through the VA. She's seen a woman forced to stay in a hotel, forbidden to see her family, while her family lived an hour and a half away. For what purpose?

Aristine thinks the Army should allow stretching during training to avoid countless shin injuries in women and men.

She thinks her story is similar to a great many others. She's found the strength to talk after six years and in the midst of a nonviolent occupation. "The Army is keeping people quiet," she says, "many, many people. Victims are sent to their attackers to ask for help."

In school, Aristine says, she learned that America is always the hero, there to fix things and to help the rest of the world. "If it weren't for us, the world would be lost!" But, she adds, you don't learn the effects that wars have on people.

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