Living

Friends or Foes

On a dare, Linda (Deni) Sauceda enlisted in the military fresh out of high school, serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, June 1974 to Feb. 1980.

She was the first in her family to serve, was stationed in Okinawa, Hawaii, California, and spent about a year in Vietnam as a corporal, primarily searching the Vietnamese women and children for weapons and contraband. Sauceda, 58, said she would have been a career Marine, had it not been for MST (Military Sexual Trauma) and subsequent PTSD.

“I served before sexual harassment laws went into effect,” Sauceda explained. “It was a good-old-boys network, and even though I was sexually assaulted (raped and gang-raped) many times at many bases, and reported it, nothing ever came of it. I was only 18 and had been raised in a very sheltered home, so when it happened, it freaked me out.”

Sauceda said the first time she was assaulted was after completing 12-weeks of boot camp (where she was sexually harassed repeatedly). She told her superiors after each incident in hopes of a transfer to a new unit or base, but more likely than not, the responses she heard were: “you’re a liar; you’re trying to slander happily married men; keep your mouth shut before you’re kicked out.”

Even though Sauceda was aware it was happening to other enlisted women, she said they really didn’t talk about it much amongst themselves, out of fear of repercussions, of losing rank, or being dishonorably discharged.

“Back then, I didn’t feel like I had control,” Sauceda said. “When you’re in the military, you’re trained and you’re taught that your superiors are the lawmakers and you do as you are told.”

She admitted that not all the men were bad, that some tried to help her by directing her to a superior officer who might listen to her and help her. Sometimes they listened. More often, they didn’t. And when she was transferred to another base, she said she would ultimately run into the same problem.

“Maybe I was targeted so much because I wouldn’t back down,” she said. “I just kept on going and trudging up that hill. I’m not a victim. I’m more like a warrior.”

Despite living in constant fear of sexual assault by peers and superior officers, Sauceda reenlisted three times, serving for eight years. She loved being a Marine, and enjoyed being a drill instructor, where she could shape other women, help them gain confidence and believe in themselves.

Ironically, sexual harassment laws were just beginning to change when she decided it was time to return to civilian life. She had had enough by that point, saying she believed she could survive and move on to a rank where no one would “mess” with her, but it turned out, after so many years, to be too much for her to handle.

Following her honorable discharge as a staff sergeant at 26, she moved to Texas, where she has lived most of her life, working for Child Protective Services as an investigator of child sexual abuse, child deaths and child trauma. She retired as a clinical psychologist for Merced County, and has been a Mountain Area resident for four years. She never married, adopting three baby boys as a single parent. Her youngest will graduate from Yosemite High School this spring.

Because Sauceda kept her secret for 30 years, no one knew what she lived through as a Marine.

“Who do you tell and for what?,” Sauceda continued. “I was ashamed that I let something like that happen over and over again ... the same reasons most women don’t talk about being raped. I had to hang on to the hope that it wouldn’t happen again, that life would get better. Being a Marine isn’t being a victim. You’d have to be a Marine to understand.”

Her father died two years ago, never knowing the grim details of his daughter’s military service. She told her mother about a year ago, but it’s “just too much for her to comprehend.” None of her sons plan on enlisting in the military, even though Sauceda has encouraged them to do so.

“I loved wearing my uniform, and was proud of what it stood for - protecting the United States of America,” Sauceda said. “If I had a daughter, I would encourage her to join the Marines with the awareness I could give her about the darker side.”

Sauceda is currently getting help for MST and PTSD through the Veteran’s Administration. To this day, whenever she finds herself in close quarters with men, her anxiety level increases dramatically and she becomes hyper-vigilant.

She is also a survivor of colon, ovarian, and most recently, breast cancer.

According to Sauceda, at one point during her military service, there were 252 women to 5,000 plus men stationed on the 29 Palms Marine Corp Base.

Today, California is home to nearly 200,000 female veterans.

It was only after sexual assaults became public knowledge and more women serving in the military stepped forward that Sauceda felt it was time to tell her story.

“I talked to my sons about my story being in the newspaper,” she continued, “and they felt it would be a positive thing for the young women who are thinking about enlisting. They’re proud I’m telling my story, and my youngest is my biggest supporter. He told me that if someone at school comes up to him and says something about it, he’ll tell them it’s their problem ... not his.”

“It’s easy to target women in the military,” Sauceda said. “It’s not as easy today as it was back then, but it’s still going on. Now, there’s more being done to help the victims, and now it’s recognized that MST does exist.”

“ With all the changes and new regulations, if I were a Marine today,” she continued, “I would go up the chain of command, and the perpetrator(s) would be prosecuted the first time it happened.

“Despite my circumstances, I would recommend that women join the Marines because you’re forced to grow. My experiences strengthened my character and me as a person. I’m not sorry I took that dare when I was 17 years old, as odd as it sounds. It built my self-confidence, and taught me that, after going through everything I had gone through, I could survive anything. I’m proud of being a Marine ... I’m just sad about the things that occurred.”

According to a Dec. 5, 2014 Military Times article, a Rand survey found that nearly half the 20,000 assaults in 2014 reported by women and 35% reported by men were penetrative sexual assaults.

New measures in the fiscal 2015 defense bill include protecting victims of sexual assault by allowing them to give input on how their case should be tried, and gives them the right to challenge any discharge or separation from service that may follow an incident of sexual assault.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has published a 2014-2016 Sexual Assault Prevention Strategy to ensure proactive and comprehensive sexual assault prevention programs, which will reduce and ultimately eliminate sexual assault within the military.

Given the pressure the Pentagon is under, there is a strong commitment to create an environment where sexual assault is not tolerated, condoned, or ignored. Details: MyDuty.mil.

Note: To honor women who have served or who are serving the U.S. Armed Forces, Governor Edmund Brown, proclaimed March 16-22 as Women’s Military History Week.

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