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By Kassidy Arena, courtesy of Iowa Public Radio News

Since the killing of U.S. Army Soldier Vanessa Guillen came to light, Latino communities have pushed for further discussion about violence against women of color in the military.

Patricia Ritchie, of Carroll, Iowa, served in the U.S. Army in Somalia in 1994. She’s a community leader, advocate and educator. And that’s what her community saw. But they didn’t see that she’s a survivor.

During her time in the service, Ritchie was sexually assaulted by someone in her company. She has not shared her story until the vigil she attended for U.S. Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen. Officials believe Guillen was killed by a fellow soldier. At the vigil service, Ritchie shared her story with other attendees. She shared her story for the first time on air Tuesday, July 21.

“I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I had seen what LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens] was saying. I was seeing what others were saying. But because I actually had that experience, I felt that I was healed to the point that I could share and hopefully others would be stronger or would come out or would seek services,” Ritchie said. “Does that make sense? Kind of like I told my story. And people would know the truth. Not many in my community knew that story. They just knew that I was the advocate. But they didn’t realize what was behind that.”

But Ritchie said the Army was not just a bad experience, she gained a lot from her time in service.

“My mom always said, you can be in the fire and not get burned. And that basically means, you have a choice of what to do, whether it’s bad or good, whether you’re in something that’s a storm, you choose how you’re going to come out of it. And also having the right choice and going into the military. I mean, there are some bad [things] there were some good, but honestly, being in the military gave me the tools to be the leader that I can be today.”

Ritchie said the military was always hard work for her. She laughed and admitted as a Latina, one of her weaknesses is she loves to eat. That meant working harder to keep up with the rest of the soldiers. But she said one influential person helped her realize how to use her experience as a leadership opportunity. Her drill sergeant.

“He said, you may be in the Army, but never forget that you are ladies. And that’s something that I carry true to this day. No matter what I have to advocate, no matter what I have to say, I have to remember that I’m still a lady,” Ritchie said. “That carries a lot because as Latinas you know, we’re taught from the beginning that your elegance, your grace, your words, the way that you project yourself, is something that will be carried on for respect, for your family and who you are.”

Ritchie described “being a lady” as someone who is strong, eloquent and able to communicate effectively. That’s something she continues to practice today. She is an advocate, paralegal assistant and active in her LULAC chapter, among many other things.

“I had contemplated coming out and discussing [the assault] because LULAC Iowa had put something out about not letting our daughters enlist in the Army because they weren’t taking care of our children. And that just totally broke my heart,” Ritchie admitted. “I had said, you know, I really didn’t want to comment on this, but what I do know is that I was a victim of military sexual assault. And no, I didn’t report it because he was in my company. And because at that time, you didn’t report those things.”

Ritchie said times are different, but many victims’ services programs in the military still have room for improvement, especially when it comes to women of color.

“I’ve just seen that as a history and I think that that’s something that’s always been painted kind of like, que somos segunda, like, we’re second class. It’s not that I believe that or you believe that, it’s not that a lot of people believe that, but that is just the systematic oppression that we as women of color have come to,” Ritchie said.

One thing women in the military can do, according to Ritchie, is band together and empower one another. The military though, needs to take its own actions as well.

“Encourage your soldier to report. And don’t stop at just one person. Tell until you can tell whoever needs to be told. Even if it’s going to the media, even if it’s going out. You know what? We give our lives for our country. It’s only right that our country gives us the services that we need after we are traumatized,” Ritchie said.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, provided below are some resources.

Iowa Victim Service Call Center: 1-800-770-1650 or text IOWAHELP to 20121

Go to Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault for more resources, guidance and advocacy help.

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