Gets Real: Female veteran says women face unique challenges in US military

A female veteran is still haunted by sexual assault by a fellow Marine, more than 40 years later. Now, she is shining a light on the unique challenges facing women who serve in the US Military.

Julia Sheriden followed her father and brothers into the US Marine Corps in 1978. But the experience left her suicidal and homeless after she was sexually assaulted by another Marine.

She formed an organization to help other female veterans in this edition of Western Washington Gets Real.

The scars Julia Sheriden lives with every day aren’t visible. But they are still there.

“He cut me, right here in my neck,” Sheriden said, rubbing the right side of her face.

On a March night in 1980, a fellow Marine grabbed her without warning and began an hours-long assault.

“And he tied me against the fence and he kept me there for several hours and tried to kill me,” she said. “He sexually assaulted me. I just couldn’t get away.”

How did she get away?

“He thought I was dead and he left.”

By then, she was badly hurt.

“My jaw was broken, my neck was cut and my jugular vein was nicked,” she said. “So, they were really worried about whether or not I would even survive.”

Pretty soon, she didn’t want to survive.

“And then there’s the Marine Corps trying to make me come back,” Sheriden said. “And I told my dad ‘I’m not safe on the base.’”

She says a turning point came the day her mother pulled her into a cold shower, both of them fully clothed.

“And I don’t know, you know, I just kind of told her a little bit about what I was experiencing and why I didn’t want to be around,” she said, her voice breaking as tears welled in her eyes. “And she said ‘You’re gonna get through this.’ It was so cathartic because she was just like petting me, loving me, nurturing me.”

The military’s own data shows that in 2021, 8.4% of female troops and 1.4% of male troops reported being sexually assaulted — nearly 36,000 service members.

Out of her experience, Julia Sheriden started OARS, Outreach and Resource Services for Women Veterans.

“Part of the reason that I started OARS was because I didn’t want people to feel the way I felt without a way through it,” she said.

But for some female veterans, the trauma can’t be overcome. In July 2020, a member of the OARS board of directors walked onto I-5 and laid down, into the path of a semi-truck.

Fifty-one-year-old Julia Villalobos had retired from the US Coast Guard.

“She served as a gunner on a patrol boat with a 50-millimeter gun,” said Sheriden. “She served as a guard at Guantanamo Bay. And she was assaulted down there by people in our own uniform. Why would you expect that to happen while you’re guarding prisoners during war?”

Villelobos brought the pain back with her stateside.

“Even though I knew she had tried to kill herself before, I really didn’t think she would do it,” said Sheriden. “I thought she was looking for some type of relief.”

Her message regarding female veterans?

“Everybody who served in the military really matters,” Sheriden said. “They’ve given up a certain portion of their life to stand guard, so we can sleep peacefully at night and not have to worry about anything. So, give us a break.”

Doing so just might save the life of someone who pledged their own life in defense of this country.

In 2013, Julia Sheriden won the Jefferson Award for extraordinary public service. As for the Marine who attacked her, he was eventually convicted of murdering another woman.

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