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Female Vet Survives Sexual Assault, Looks to Future

New America Media/Sing Tao Daily, News feature, Charles Ding Posted: Jun 05, 2009

I would say I have changed due to my military service. I have become more independent and responsible, definitely better at taking care of myself, and I know how to deal with tragedy better than I used to and to persevere despite difficult times. I also learned that I shouldn't rely too much on other people, for their sake as well as mine.─ Fonda Fan
Fonda Fan
Chapter 1: A College Student While an Army Reserve Soldier

In the summer of 2003, Fonda Fan was admitted to UC Berkeley. She joined the U.S. Army reserve at almost the same time.

I joined the Army in order to cover college tuition. I did not want to put a financial burden on my parents while I was getting an education, and at the same time, I thought the Army was a good place for me to learn real-life skills and grow as a person, she said.

Fan, now 23, traveled to many places as a child but mainly grew up in California. She has one sister five years younger, and she started thinking about joining the military after sending in college applications and wondering how she would pay the high cost of tuition. She joined because she wanted her parents to have as little financial burden as possible sending her through Cal. Her sister would be entering college a few years later and sending two children to school is really expensive.

Fan received basic training in general soldiering skills in Fort Jackson, S.C. in July 2003. It was there that she learned combat skills such as shooting the M-16 rifle. She took part in bayonet drills, grenade drills, and trainings in hand-to-hand combat. At Fort Eustis, V.A., she learned skills more specific to her primary job in transportation. In her actual unit, she was taught to drive the Humvee.

Chapter II : Fight in Iraq

Fan was deployed to Iraq in October 2004. It was the middle of the fall semester at UC Berkeley, and she had to drop all her classes. She started training with her unit to prepare for the war. By December, she was in Iraq. Fan was stationed at FOB Speicher near Saddam Husseins hometown, Tikrit.

Fan served in a Movement Control Team, a small detachment of soldiers that were specifically meant to track the movement of civilian security convoys, flights, and the general supplies that were moved in each of these operations through FOB Speicher.

Fan worked in all departments of her units mission. She was a trip-ticket clerk for most of the time, meaning that she issued tickets to convoys that came in with their starting point times so that they would not be on the road during bomb sweeps or any potentially hazardous road conditions based on the intelligence they received. Fan also sometimes worked at a manifest point to input data on how many soldiers were traveling on each convoy and what supplies they carried. In the final months of deployment, she also spent a good amount of time at the airfield arranging baggage pallets for soldiers traveling by air and tracked the number of people coming and going by helicopter.

Fan says the most dangerous attack she ever received was not from the enemy but from one of her own. One night, Fan says, she was sexually assaulted on her base. The assailant was not in the Army, but a private contractor working for one of the security companies that Fondas unit supported. He was the convoy commander sometimes and needed to come into the office for approval to move his trucks out of the base. Fan complained to authorities, but they eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence.

It is a common problem for women serving on the front lines of Americas wars. In May 2008, the New York Times reported nearly a third of female veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan say they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the military, and 71 to 90 percent say they were sexually harassed by the men with whom they served.

Reporting these problems can be extremely difficult. Such incidents usually occur in a setting where the victim lives and works, notes the VAs National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In most cases, this means that victims must continue to live and work closely with their perpetrators, often leading to increased feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and being at risk for further victimization. It is usually impossible to remain anonymous. In addition, victims are often forced to choose between continuing military careers during which they are forced to have frequent contact with their perpetrators or sacrificing their career goals in order to protect themselves from future victimization.

After she returned to UC Berkeley, Fan did tell a few of her friends about the sexual assault, but once she did, they usually never talked about it again because it is an uncomfortable topic. For the most part, she just tries to keep her mind off what happened in the past and not to think about it too much.

She sees a Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist, which helps because she can about whatever associations come up in the day. The trauma has made her very suspicious of men. She doesnt like to be alone with any males or to be anywhere with large groups of men like at a party or at the gym. As a result, she stays away from social situations, especially if it seems like liquor could be consumed. She prefers to go to the gym early in the morning when there arent too many people there.

Chapter III : Studies at UC Berkeley

Fonda went back to UC Berkeley by the spring semester of 2006 in January. From the battlefield to a peaceful campus, how did she adjust?

It was a peaceable transition because I was quite happy to be home and to return to a more relaxed state of life, Fan says. My military experience was helpful academically because it really taught me how to deal with hardships on a daily basis so that student life did not seem like as much of a challenge.

She was treated well by her classmates and faculty when she returned to classes after active duty. Most people seemed pretty impressed and surprised, but there were a few who were a bit hostile to the fact that she was in the Army and had served overseas. For the most part, her service was not a huge topic for most people, usually only some close friends were extremely curious about what it was like to be in the military.

Charter IV: Injured and Treatment

After shed been back from Iraq for a few months, Fonda Fan got hurt. While participating in a U.S. Army reserve drill in February 2006, she fell off a 16-feet high ladder. While rubber tires broke her fall, she landed on her back and suffered spine and leg fractures.

State workers compensation paid for all her medical expenses, both the surgery and the first few years of physical therapy. She was not entirely clear why they were picking up the bill either, but the way it was explained to her was that since the accident happened while she was with UC Berkeley's Army ROTC program, Workers' Comp was their insurance, not any military-specific insurance. Apparently, ROTC is not enough of a part of the Army for her to have qualified for Army insurance. However, this was somewhat rectified after she had applied for a VA claim and the injury was determined to be on military duty because she was working with ROTC in lieu of her regular Army drill.

When she filled out her VA claim, she applied for compensation not just for her back but for military sexual trauma.

The amount of money she gets is supposed to cover both issues, and the free VA medical care is likewise supposed to cover both issues. She receives about $700 a month in disability compensation, which was also helpful, but not enough to make life that much easier after all the medical issues.

Fonda said her treatment at the VA Hospital was very good. Originally, she was rushed to a civilian hospital where she received all the primary care, including her operation and most of her physical therapy. As a result, the VA was a secondary health institution to her and the free care she could get there did not apply to the civilian hospitals. For the latter, she simply had to use workers compensation, which is a difficult insurance to work with.

Fan says the physical therapy she received from the VA was not as good as on the civilian side because it seemed the staff was not quite as knowledgeable, and there were long waits. The doctors always seemed to be running behind. But since she was getting free health care, she says, it seemed like an okay tradeoff.

Fonda still needs to go in for physical therapy on a less-frequent basis, and she continues to get general health checkups at the VA Hospital as she is doing relatively well. There is some nerve damage that is permanent. Her right foot and leg are rather numb and weaker than her left so she needs to avoid any high-impact activity since she can re-injure herself easily. After the initial bureaucracy of being registered at a VA Hospital, she says the ongoing hassle is not too bad; she can just go directly to an appointment and wait to be seen.

Chapter V : Harmony and Supportive Family

Fan is from a first generation Chinese immigrant family in Monterey Park. Her mom, Zhu Fan, works for a non-profit Christian radio station. Her dad, John Fan, a PhD, works for the state government, as well as teaches at the community college part-time. As a result, they live comfortably. But shouldering college tuition would have still been difficult.

When Fonda signed up for the Army Reserve, her parents worried because the war in Afghanistan had just begun, and they were afraid their daughter would be deployed. But after the Taliban was overthrown in a matter of weeks, their mood lightened. They were hopeful that all the conflicts would end soon and Fonda wouldn't have to go anywhere. They also hoped that being in the Army would be a useful experience to Fonda in teaching her how to live more independently. They weren't mad at all, but very supportive and trusted her decision.

When Fonda was in Iraq, her parents worried about their daughter. Fan and Zhu said they always prayed to end the war as early as possible, so their daughter could safely return home.

The Fans say their daughter is a cheerful person. She served in the transport team where it was relatively safe. She never experienced some scenes of terror nor were her comrades killed in action.

John Fan believed that Fonda might have returned back to Iraq to serve in the Army if she were not injured in military training. In December 2008, Fonda graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in English, and she is now applying for a masters degree in education at one of the UC campuses.

She has excellent academic achievements and wins several scholarships, her father said.

VI: Marriage

Fonda Fan wedding

Fonda got married in July of 2008 to Bryce Matthews, a boy she met at UC Berkeley in August of 2006 shortly after her spine injury. They were roommates in the same house near the campus and it turned out they were taking the same Shakespeare class so they got to know each other very well. Bryce is still rather unhappy about all that's happened to her, but Fonda says he's been extremely supportive and helped her through some tough times.

Fonda is still a part of the Reserves, and she still can be called up, but she doubts she could go overseas again due to her spinal injury. There is a health check before deploying. It is still possible she could go if there's a shortage of troops, but unlikely.

Fonda is currently waiting to hear back from graduate schools. She tutors part-time and she goes to her Army Reserve drills, but otherwise she is just waiting to hear back from schools. Fonda does hope to go on to be an English professor at the community college level. She is enjoying her married life in Washington State. She says her husband is an incredibly supportive and loving man.

We currently live with his parents and help them with small expenses through the little bit we make on our own, Fonda says.

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