“I want to hear you scream!” Petty Officer Sampson said on the second day of basic training. “I know you’re not here to make Daddy proud! I know you are not here to find a damn man! I know that you have been beaten, hurt, abused! Why else do girls join the military? That’s why you have to yell. None of this bullshit flowery voice. I won’t have it!”
… I felt symptoms of stage fright: pounding headache, clammy hands, racing pulse. I’d thought if I moved away from my abusive family I would never have to yell again. I practiced in my head … good morning! … good morning, Petty Officer! I was going to yell louder than I ever had in my life. I figured it was better to be dropped for screaming than be set back for not raising my voice. When the knock came, I knew that it was her, Petty Officer Sampson. I summoned all of the frustration I had harbored for years and in a guttural blow yelled, ‘”Good Morning Petty Officer! Airman Recruit Clothier, Division 265, standing by for further instruction!”
Sampson shook her head in disbelief. “That was outstanding!” And it was. It was the first time I had heard my voice sound strong.
– from “The Controller” by Christy Clothier
I first encountered Christy Clothier’s writing through her nonfiction piece “The Controller” (from the collection Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks). “The Controller” tells of her near-rape by a Navy SEAL when she was a young air traffic controller, and after I read it, it stuck in my head for a long time. It’s a story that manages to be harrowing, grim, vivid, and somehow hopeful all at once.
I learned that Christy was out of the Navy after six years of service; that she’d earned an MFA degree from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and that she was still writing. Excerpts from her memoir have appeared in Numero Cinq magazine, and her story “The Controller” was adapted for a play called “Coming in Hot.”
Mil Spouse Review: Christy, I am honored that you are joining us!
Let’s start near the beginning. In an excerpt from your memoir, “Trail of Breadcrumbs: Why I Joined and Left the U.S. Navy,” you recall going to Navy boot camp at the age of 20. The details are so vivid: arriving on a Greyhound bus, “showing my teeth, getting my sight tested, having flu shots fired into my left arm by a gun, and penicillin so thick it was termed “The Peanut-Butter Shot” stung into my right buttock.” You recall the RDCs making your group of women run so long and hard that you’d “make it rain,” the heat dripping condensation back onto all of you from the ceiling, and recount a young woman suffering a heart attack after being forced to cycle until she collapsed. And yet you felt safer there than you had before, at home. How do you feel about boot camp now, nearly twenty years later, when you look back on it?
Christy Clothier: I have mixed feelings about boot camp to this day. I still remember liking it. It was the first time I’d ever had the luxury of three meals a day; not because my parents were poor, simply, my brother and I were not allowed to eat much of the food in the house. Really, boot camp became the first parent I’d ever had. Looking back, I see it has an extension of the same abusive family I’d always known, but that’s not to say everyone in the system was abusive, as my writing details (the kindly RDC who took my hands, told me he understood and had felt the same way).
Mil Spouse Review: Throughout your writing, you have drawn connections between childhood abuse and subsequent military service. Can you explain a little more about that?
Christy Clothier: By writing about childhood abuse and subsequent military service, I try to explore possible connections between the two, such as hazing. For example, in another piece, I wrote about how upon making the rank of E-4, I had to choose to participate in the hazing ritual of having my left arm punched by every air traffic controller in my division who outranked me, which was every person except me and one other girl. But not participating would have excluded me from the larger group. The other girl did opt out, and she was shunned. I had already been shunned so much after the Navy SEAL attack that I had spent nearly 6 months in my barracks room alone, whenever I wasn’t working. So after the promotion, I watched fellow coworkers get their arms punched, and I did it too. The next day my arm was black, but after the hazing ritual, the entire division went to the galley to eat dinner together. It may as well have been a meal out with my own family, the parallels, for me, are so similar: ignoring a beating by cementing our ties with a meal. I’m not saying everyone’s military or childhood experience was like mine, but I know many whose are, and I wanted to speak to that. Back then I wasn’t strong enough to reject people who would hurt me. I just wanted to fit in because that world was all I knew, and, having left my family, I longed for another one.
Mil Spouse Review: Tell us a little about your job as an air traffic controller while you were in the Navy.
(From “The Controller”: “Earlier that day, the radar equipment in the air control tower had gone down. Without navigational assistance, I’d had to keep a motion picture inside my head: where the planes were, what they were doing, how close they were to me, to each other, their speeds, and what they wanted — to land, to touch and go, or to perform the acrobatic war dances of spiraling flameouts or sharp mid-air breaks.”)
Christy Clothier: I loved my job as an air traffic controller. Frankly, it was fun. I’ve never had another job like it, and I hugely miss the daily rush, though it definitely took its toll on my stress level (I’d smoke a pack of cigarettes and run 3 miles a day). At that point in my life, being an air traffic controller was the first time I felt like I was good at something. It taught me to speak up, literally, and gave me the confidence to defend myself, against the SEAL at the trial, my parents, and a lot of other obstacles I’ve faced since. I worked very hard to become a tower supervisor at both facilities because the job gave me something to believe in. I was more than a sexual assault victim (I had been attacked in the military more than once), I was also the tower supervisor, and I was important; that kept me alive, because it gave me something to live for.
Mil Spouse Review: Briefly, before entering the military yourself, you were an Army wife, and trapped in an abusive relationship. (In “The Controller,” you write, “Three years earlier, as a military wife, I learned never to yell…I learned that the cops did nothing, that the military covered it up, that I would be blamed for hurting his career.”) How did your life change when you went from being a military spouse to being in the military yourself?
Christy Clothier: [This question] is a great one and not one I’d closely considered. I wrote about my abusive ex-husband in “The Controller” to draw a parallel about my naïvete about the military structure. I saw the military protect my ex-husband and ignore the police reports, even the bruises on my face, and instead of finding their attitude abhorrent, I only saw a world where people protected their own, which was exactly what I wanted. I was also only 17 years old [as a military spouse].
Mil Spouse Review: Amazingly, even after you were attacked by a Navy SEAL and offered very little support from military leadership, you had the fortitude to remain in the Navy for several years. How did you find the strength to do so?
Christy Clothier: I stayed in the Navy after the attack partly because I wasn’t given any other option. I’d asked for counseling. I could feel something was wrong: I couldn’t sleep, eat, started jumping at the slightest noise. I was denied assistance and told to get back to work.
I didn’t know I was developing PTSD — which, having not had any treatment, manifested into a disability I have to this day. Conversely, as mentioned, my job was the only thing I had, and as the supervisor of the tower, I could control my work environment, so I worked nonstop, ignoring the rest of my life and focusing on working and studying to make a higher rank that would insulate me against anyone who might hurt me (I did not participate on the hazing when I made E-5, because I had enough experience as an air traffic controller to know they couldn’t shun me professionally, and at that point I didn’t care if they shunned me personally, I shunned myself by running every day after work). I found solace in being okay with being alone and focusing on what could make me stronger.
Mil Spouse Review: Were there any men or women who offered you support during this time?
Ironically, after the SEAL attacked me, I found support from the most unlikely places. My Lieutenant, who had once asked me at a previous duty station if I was a “barracks whore”–because I’d [accidentally] wandered around the study room on an unmarked male-only floor my first night of air traffic control school — was my staunchest supporter. He pointed out to me in his office once that while he’d learned I wasn’t a whore, I was one of his best air traffic controllers. The complexity of having to prove one’s self in such an environment is very much what it was to be a woman in the Navy, I believe.
What changes do you think should occur in military culture to ensure that female service members feel safe and respected by their fellow soldiers?
Christy Clothier: I think changes in the military are extremely important and very difficult. This won’t be a popular answer: We cannot ask the same men to respect the women they work alongside to also accept the military tradition of blowing off steam and spending off-duty hours at international whore houses (think Thailand, even Tijuana), strip clubs, etc. The military needs to transition into a professional environment, not the medieval throwback of the pillaging boys’ club.
Mil Spouse Review: So, what are you doing (and writing) now?
Christy Clothier: Now I’m writing a novel, which is taking quite a bit of time, working for my local paper, and running a baking business (note to readers: she has “cracked the code” on high-altitude baking, but do not ask her for her secret chocolate-chip-cookie recipe! She will not tell you). I spend most of my time with my dog and my husband, Tyson. I’ve finally found the family I’ve always wanted and a place to call home. It’s not always easy, as military wounds linger, but I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to do, and I’m not finished.
Mil Spouse Review: Thank you so much, Christy, for sharing your brave and eloquent thoughts.
You can read excerpts from Clothier’s memoir here and here (with thanks to Numero Cinq magazine). Look for her upcoming review of Kayla Williams’s “Plenty of Time When We Get Home,” forthcoming here on the Military Spouse Book Review.