by Kristin Kurens
Katie Neeley is full of stories, as a woman, an artist, a former Marine coping with PTSD, and a survivor of rape and sexual harassment.
I met with Neeley in early April of 2017 to hear her story, but before we dive into anything, she tells me she has to tell me a story about the word cunt.
“The first time I heard the word cunt, I thought it was a kind of Girl Scout cookie. I didn’t hear it until my fourth year in the Marine Corps. In the Marines, you get care packages . . . including boxes and boxes of Girl Scout cookies, every kind of cookie.
“This guy comes in all excited and says, ‘Oh, this is where the cunts are at.’ And I asked him, ‘What color box do you want? What does a cunt cookie look like?’”
Neeley says she imagined a cream-filled fortune cookie.
“He turned bright red and walked out. I thought he was going to go ask a buddy what color the box was. The guys are dying laughing, slapping me on the back saying ‘You handled that so well.’”
All Neeley can say is “No, really, what’s a cunt?”
We’re minutes into our interview and Neeley already has us laughing. We’re sitting in her new gallery in downtown Albuquerque. Roe LiBretto, an allegorical artist who works in watercolor, is with us. I met Neeley through LiBretto who had told me the story of one of her paintings: an artist coping with years of trauma after serving in the military who’s opening a gallery in downtown Albuquerque . . . there’s more to it, of course.
LiBretto told me just enough for me to know that this was a story that had to be told. It’s clear LiBretto feels protective of Neeley. Neeley is vibrant, bright, funny, intelligent, a gifted artist. She holds little back. But that hasn’t always been easy.
Neeley joined the Marines in 2003. There were a few factors in her decision. After 9/11, she was sick of the news, unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t. She felt disappointed in her art. She felt like she had nothing to say, like her art would be vicarious, ignorant, naive.
So, Neeley did what few women—let alone artists—would do. She headed to a local Marine recruitment office, wearing a dress and carrying a portfolio and résumé in a briefcase. She felt she needed life experience.
At the recruitment office, she was passed around to recruitment officers who needed to fill their quota for female recruits, like a treasure. Her recruitment officer told her, “You are the only mother fucker I’ve met in my life who is joining the Marine Corps for artistic inspiration.”
So off to boot camp, where Neeley didn’t understand the yelling or adult temper tantrums that came along with the disciplinarian subculture of the Marines. She was often called the joker or space cadet. She gave herself a punk-like mullet before she left, after watching GI Jane and thinking they’d shave her head anyway. They didn’t.
The other recruits would piss themselves, too afraid to ask to go to the head. Neeley would just go. When confronted on her return, she almost made her commanding officer laugh with her genuine innocence.
After boot camp came combat training. Boot camp was segregated by gender, but not combat training. Marines often snuck off to have sex and do drugs, but Neeley didn’t feel threatened by her fellow male Marines. Not yet. Still being in the States made the tiny world of the Marines feel slightly less small.
She knew she was in a different world, a subculture—one dominated by men and the mentality that women are inferior. While she was still in training in the United States, it wasn’t as bad. There wasn’t the restriction of isolation as when stationed overseas, bound to the Marine base.
Neeley’s first duty station was in Okinawa, Japan. There were fewer females; it was harder to get off of base. And, Neeley points out, it was well before Facebook and smartphones entered the picture. Cell phones were still rare. More isolation. More men. Fewer women.
“Sexual harassment was constant,” Neeley says, “just an everyday experience. I never felt safe. I never was safe.”
Neeley escaped two sexual assaults in Okinawa. Sergeant J., who assaulted other women, attempted to assault Neeley. He came up behind her as she was crouched down, working on setting up communications.
She was adding water around the grounding rod—a piece of rebar. He approached her from behind and placed his legs on either side of her. He bent down and said, "I had to wait until you weren't looking."
Not fully grasping what was happening, Neeley reacted quickly, reaching up to grab the back of his head and slamming it into the grounding rod. "I didn't even think about it. It scared the shit out of me when he did that."
She quickly got up and started apologizing. She thought he was playing a game, and she had overreacted to her sergeant's "test." Had her trajectory been slightly different, the rebar could have gone through his eye. She nearly killed him and escaped. But she was afraid she would get in trouble. He played it off, saying it was okay, not to worry about it.
“I actually had more loyalty to him after that, because I felt like he kept me from getting into trouble when I busted him up.” When Neeley was questioned by another sergeant as to whether Sergeant J. had ever touched her in a sexual or inappropriate way, Neeley took his side, defending a man who had attempted to do exactly that.
Neeley was assaulted again in Okinawa. Three men—not Marines (their hair was too long)—came into her room. She had no roommate at the time and had left her door open while packing. The guys snuck in through the fire exit on to her floor of the barracks after waiting for the guards to head to a different floor.
They came in, shut the door and locked it behind them. "I ended up with a guy between my legs... And I pretended that I wanted to go along with it. I said, 'I don't want him. I want him.' I picked the biggest of the three . . . and I pitted the guys against each other when I did that.
"I pretend I'm taking off my pants, and as they go to trade places, I run out the door." Neeley ran down to the duty desk, where no one was on duty, and hid. She never reported it, never knew who they were. But she’s confident that they knew who she was, knew exactly where the women’s barracks were located. They just had to wait for an unsuspecting woman to leave her door open.
Neeley didn’t report the incident and knew that if she wanted to press charges later, it would have seemed like it was consensual. "Even though I was being manipulative to get the fuck out of that situation."
Neeley married a Marine while she was enlisted in 2006. “To be in a steady relationship with another Marine was a form of self-defense. Being married was a form of defense. It’s like fucking another Marine’s wife. It makes you less of a target. You’re still a target, but you’re less of a target when you’re married.”
The marriage wasn’t an outright plan of defense from sexual assault. She was also afraid that she would never see him again, since he was being transferred to another duty station. So she proposed to him on Valentine’s day in a restaurant. They eloped in California over a three-day leave.
Despite being married, Neeley was raped while stationed in Fuji. I don’t press her on the details, because to me that’s not what’s important. But I do ask if she ever reported it.
“I reported sexual harassment after Fuji, but I didn't tell them about the rape. There were too many bystanders who would have been in trouble for what happened. They didn't know what to do. It wasn't their fault.”
I ask her if she was protecting fellow Marines.
“I was terrified to say anything at all, but i couldn't hide it. I had cut the word 'no' into my arm. I wasn't protecting anyone so much as I was afraid. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn't. I was a chickenshit.”
Later, when she landed in Iraq, every male Marine knew who every female Marine was. “It was creepy.” That’s especially disturbing given the lack of technology at the time in comparison with what’s available today.
I mention the recent scandal of Marines sharing naked photos of female Marines. “Oh yeah,” she says. “That didn’t surprise me at all. I’m surprised that it took so long to come out.”
Neeley was already on high alert when she joined a unit of female Marines upon arriving in Iraq—eight women total. They were all brought together and told by a commanding officer, “We’ve had six rapes reported in the last week. So don’t be alone.”
There were special drivers to call if they were alone. It was an unreasonable thing to ask. She was the only certified fiber-optics tech deployed at the time, meaning she worked alone often. Marines are also trained not to accept special treatment.
It’s an awkward position to be in: Whether you consider that a safety precaution or an advantage, it’s still special treatment. If you don’t call for a ride back to the cans (sleeping quarters) and you get raped, it’s your fault.
And is the driver female? Is it the one Marine who doesn’t rape? As LiBretto points out, “It puts you in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation.’”
I asked Neeley if she looks around at that point and realizes that six of her fellow Marines had been raped in the last week. She didn’t think about it that way, but she was on high alert at all times.
“We walked around on condition one, which is ready to shoot, loaded and ready to fire . . . And we were told not to do that. Well, I was. I don’t know if the other girls were or not. I was always on alert. I was always thinking I might have to shoot another Marine. The only people I ever wanted to shoot and kill when I was enlisted were other Marines. And that is a really awkward place to be.”
She continues, “But for me, it was worse in Okinawa. In Iraq I was in a really good platoon. There was a lot more bullshit in Okinawa. In Iraq . . . the guys I worried about were not fellow Marines in my platoon. It was more the grunts in other platoons.”
Those were the guys who believed women didn’t belong in the Marines: don’t be like a girl, don’t be a little bitch. If you're a female, you have to prove yourself to every male. “You have to prove that you're worthy to be there... It fucks with your psyche. When a female makes a mistake, it's all females. When a guy makes a mistake, it's just him.”
She recalls a roommate who pressed rape charges against Sergeant J.—the one who attempted to sexually assault Neeley in Okinawa. At the time, everybody hated her for it. "I had that attitude too,” Neeley says. “She's a slut; she brought it on herself by sleeping around."
Neeley has since reached out to her and apologized. "I told her, 'You were brave. You were the one who had courage. I'm so glad you stood up for us and got rid of him.' I didn't even remember for years that he had tried to hurt me.”
While in Iraq, Neeley learned that her husband cheated on her. She forgave him but left him a few years later when she learned he was a pedophile after discovering his browser search history. It was when the couple was trying for their first baby.
Neeley’s mother-in-law told her pedophilia ran in the family: several family members had been molested as children, including Neeley’s husband, his mother and her sisters. But despite receiving therapy as a child, her husband still had a problem.
“He admitted it when I confronted him, admitted that he needed help. I left overnight. I called my father; we hadn't spoken in years. My father drove overnight with a U-Haul and picked me up that next morning. I got myself divorced using Legal Zoom.”
She left almost everything she had in California and returned to Albuquerque.
"After I got out of the military, stuff took a long time to hit me." The isolation, multiple sexual assaults, rape, constant fear and sexual harassment left Neeley a mess.
“When you're sexually harassed every day, you lose sight of your boundaries. You begin to feel worthless all the time and your own body develops a certain amount of invisibility to you . . .
“That makes it hard to know at what point the assault begins. Was it barging into my room? Was it being pushed? Was it at the point I was grabbed? Or was it just getting fucked? Was that really rape? You actually question this. And you actually think that silence means you're being as strong as you can be.”
After returning from Iraq in 2007, Neeley would hear a garage door open and roll under her table for cover. She was especially triggered by males, which prevented her from getting the care she desperately needed to recover from years of being on edge and years of dealing with untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She tried many times to go to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health facility in Albuquerque.
"After I got out, I was at the VA, just trying to enroll in health care." A male nurse, who wasn't particularly threatening, took Neeley into a room and shut the door. Just sitting in a chair alone in a room with a man was enough to trigger her. He asked for her name and basic information, and Neeley started crying. She was uncomfortable but didn't know why. He tried to reassure her that she was in a safe place and asked if she was okay.
She finally stood up, crying, and ran out. She went years without health care; she just couldn't go back. When she did go back, it was often after hours when she was at her worst, and she didn’t know which building to go into. She tells LiBretto and me that she once hid behind a dumpster at the VA, bawling in desperation. She knew she needed help but didn’t know how or who to ask.
LiBretto asks how long it took Neeley to seek help for her mental health after she got back in 2007. She went years without aid, in survival mode: squeaking by on $500 a month, dumpster diving, whatever it took.
How did she finally get the care she needed? "I committed suicide." We all laugh, because Neeley has a way of bringing levity into the room. Of course, she didn’t commit suicide; she attempted to take her life in January of 2016. Neeley ended up in Ward 7, a psych ward, at the VA.
Neeley maintains her sense of humor, something she did despite her suicide attempt. Doctors, psychiatrists would ask her how she felt about trying something, and she would respond with "Well, I'm not supposed to be here, so I have no plans."
It's incredible that she laughs so easily, especially after, as she says, she was ready to donate her organs. She laughs often and cracks jokes, just as she did while recovering in the hospital.
"One of the funniest moments after I committed suicide . . . When they brought the tray of food, I caught myself reading the ingredients on the back of something . . . I thought 'Wait a minute. How could I possibly give a shit about what is in this?'
"Everything was funny to me. And they also have a quirky sense of humor there [Ward 7]. They have a morbid sense of humor. And it's healthy. Because smiling and laughing are good for you. You gotta find the funny."
Neeley's therapy groups after her suicide attempt were co-ed. At first, she was terrified to leave her room, even though she was in a freezing-cold room that never saw sunlight. She huddled up under blankets determined not to leave . . . until she heard music playing. That music was what finally drew her out of her room.
A guitarist named David was playing, surrounded by other patients. He asked if anyone wanted to learn how to play. Neeley raised her hand, and she started to learn to play guitar. "It broke the silence that I had, where I was not going to be around males; I was not going to talk to males. I was triggered by males because of all this shit. This guy made himself my ally. And even though in Ward 7 I had to deal with sexual tension—a lot of it—I was still okay."
She’s frank about how essential it is for Veterans to talk to each other and write about the trauma they’ve experienced. "You don't want to talk to the people you care about because you don't want to bring them down. The magical thing that happens when you're with a fellow trauma patient is you open up and talk to each other; you really can relate. You're being helped by hearing their story, and you realize that it helps them to hear your story.
“You realize that your experience is valuable. And even though you don't have a solution, you don't feel guilty for sharing. Being able to share the experience you've had, even just to find words for it, is probably the most important part.
“You've gotta find words for your trauma. There's something magical about words, language, being able to articulate what you've experienced. If you can find words for it, that heals you."
Humor, she says, helps tremendously, too. "If you can find jokes, that's even better," Neeley says, laughing. "There's some shit that's never funny, but . . . I'm also happily medicated. I can function. It's nice."
Which brings up another point: stigmatizing the use of meds. Too often it's easy to say that anyone should be able to get through without medication. But the reality is that it isn't that easy for everyone, especially when dealing with years of pent-up trauma. With PTSD comes neurological damage and a diminished capacity to make dopamine, serotonin—the feel-good neurotransmitters.
Neeley describes what it's like to have "healthy" PTSD, the kind of post-traumatic stress one would get from a single traumatic event. She was once hit by a car while crossing the street. There was a long period of time where her body would not let her cross the street. That's a normal response to a traumatic event. With time and effort, it got better. She can now cross the street "like a normal person."
But she contrasts that with the impact of the continual stress of being a woman in the military: a target of sexual predators, dealing with multiple attempts of sexual assault, rape, being held to a completely different set of standards just on the basis of gender.
CPTSD or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a culmination of traumas. “There is no one single incident you can go back to and fix. It's a complex experience that happened over time, with emotional pressure, with different subtleties. You can't just think of one moment and deal with it. It's years and years of developmental trauma."
Neeley still attends a therapy group, writing with other Veterans. It gives her a chance to connect with people who can understand what she's been through. It's a way to feel less alone, in addition to cracking jokes and being "obnoxious."
"It's really cheesy to say, but feeling like you belong in some way, somewhere, is really important."
Neeley wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the VA. She wouldn't be alive. After she left Ward 7, she was diagnosed with PTSD in a compensation and pension interview. And she received back pay that she's using to get her gallery started. "I want to recover. That's my goal." Help from the VA—emotional, mental, financial—is why Neeley is still alive and doing her best to help humanity, from the homeless to local artists to organizations like Heroes Walk Among Us, Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico, Planned Parenthood.
Her gallery, KD Neeley, in downtown Albuquerque is exactly for that: helping people. She's planning for fundraisers and teaching art. The space is designed to inspire people to talk, share, have conversations just like the one we had in early April about her life in and out of the military.
The gallery, of course, is also a venue for artists. "I have a lot of conflicts when it comes to art. I really want to have art that is meaningful, but I don't really get to decide what art means. Nobody does. But I think a lot of the meaning will be a percentage being donated to whatever the cause is."
Neeley also takes inspiration from fellow artists. Zan Sisco, a friend and fellow artist in New Jersey was homeless for a while, and then started working with the homeless, making art with them.
Sisco also told Neeley about care packages for the homeless that include everyday items most of us take for granted: socks, hair ties, hand sanitizer, hand-held mirrors, toothpaste, toothbrushes, maxi pads (which men can also use as gauze), baby wipes, and hand wipes.
One of the biggest problems the homeless population faces isn't much different from what a former Marine faces. Many of them are just out of prison, where they regularly received medical treatment, psych treatment, and meds for mental health issues. But once they leave prison, they’re cut off from treatment. Few of them have job prospects or a place to live.
Prison is much like the military: a highly controlled, highly abusive subculture with almost zero transition into the "real" world. Reintegration is hard, even for the most supported individuals. And if you have no help, you can flounder.
"I'm on meds. I'm very appreciative. They work. I love my meds. The VA here has helped me more than I can say. They have the Beacon Clinic for mental health. That's how I started getting help."
Neeley only found out about the Beacon Clinic after calling a suicide hotline—something she did more times than she can recall.
Sexual assault, sexual harassment, unwelcome sexual advances, and rape are not uncommon in the military. The VA uses the term Military Sexual Trauma (MST), recognizing that one in four women report MST during screenings. Men are victims, too, with one in 100 reporting sexual trauma during service. It’s a recognition desperately needed for Veterans who struggle with MST, and the VA is working to ensure VA providers are educated on MST and treating MST-related conditions.
The VA launched MakeTheConnection.net in 2011, an online resource for Veterans and their loved ones. The campaign deals with mental health issues and treatment and provides a platform for Veterans to share their stories in a very candid and personal way.
Make the Connection recognizes the stark consequences of MST: PTSD, depression, substance abuse, relationship problems, and more. The site notes, “Sexual assault is more likely to result in symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than are most other types of trauma, including combat.”
Having continued contact with and reliance on a perpetrator, worrying about protecting a unit, or fearing appearing weak or damaging opportunities for promotion compound the psychological impact of sexual trauma. It’s often assumed your fellow soldier or Marine has your back. When that trust is broken, the emotional burden can be difficult to resolve.
Neeley knows firsthand just how powerful and healing it can be to talk about MST. "The thing that helped me the most wasn't the counseling; it was talking to fellow Veterans. It's called trauma bonding. That's what gets you close to fellow Vets… They can relate to this whole aspect of your life that nobody else can."
There’s also an underlying current of respect for one another, remembering that everyone comes with a past.
"We have this stigma against Vets. We forget they're just like us. When you're enlisted and dealing with all that shit, you get messed up. And you forget that the people you're dealing with are also messed up. There are these people you come to hate . . . Under different circumstances, you'd be friends."
I ask Neeley what words of wisdom she can impart to the women and men of the world. Neeley’s advice: "Break the silence."
The grand opening for the KD Neeley gallery in Albuquerque, NM is May 12, 2017. You can view Neeley’s art and visit the gallery site at neeleyarts.com.
Kristin Kurens is a writer, editor, and artist. She thrives on words, music, art, and aiding the verbally challenged. In her free time she writes fiction, paints, travels—always in pursuit of the authentic and strange.