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Women veterans share stories of harassment and assault, County-supported event planted ‘seeds for change’

Women veterans share stories:  “I am a survivor of sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape by my counterparts. I still serve today probably because I know there are women out there that have gone through, and are going through, the same things.”

That emotional testimony came from Schcola Chambers, who fought through tears to share her story at a recent event jointly hosted by the South Dade Veterans Alliance and the Miami-Dade County Commission for Women.

Born and raised in Cutler Bay, Chambers joined the National Guard in 2006 and is still a member.

“I am currently still seeking help, which is why this is kind of hard,” she continued.

Called “Planting Resilience in the Lives of Women Veterans,” the event was held to uplift and support female veterans who have experienced trauma. Chambers joined many former servicewomen on that day who shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault, in an effort to heal, grow and raise awareness of the issue. A flower planting activity allowed participants to “metaphorically plant beautiful seeds of change,” furthering the goal to positively impact assault survivors and the community.

A biannual survey conducted by the Pentagon reported in 2018 that more than 28% of active-duty servicewomen experienced unwanted sexual contact. Sexual misconduct in the military often goes unreported, as victims fear either professional or social retaliation.

The South Dade Veterans Alliance is a nonprofit organization that provides education and wellness resources to veterans and their families. The Miami-Dade County Commission for Women serves as an advisory board to county commissioners, administration and the public at large about issues pertaining to the quality of life of local women and children.

Julie Robison, director of the South Dade Veterans Alliance, said that while technological advancements have allowed veterans to get replacement limbs, more must be done to help treat women’s less visible military scars.

“Who and what can replace what is taken from a woman when she’s sexually assaulted? These women protect and serve, but there’s no one to protect them,” Robison said.

A veteran and survivor of assault herself, Robison provides the support she once desperately needed to other women now. One of her long-term goals for the organization is to create a safe house for female veterans in need. Spreading awareness of the issue is the first step.

Another woman who courageously shared her story to help draw attention to sexual violence and harassment in the military is Torika Alonso Burford.

While in training for the U.S. Coast Guard, Alonso Burford found out she was pregnant.

“[One of my superiors] said, ‘You can take care of this, and come back to serve your country. That’s what a good recruit would do,’” she recalled.

Pressuring women into getting abortions was commonplace, according to Alonso Burford. She decided to continue with the pregnancy, but one of her colleagues went a different route. That friend became severely depressed after an abortion and later took her own life.

“Because of the decision that she felt pressured into making, that guilt wore down on her over the years,” said Alonso Burford.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Commissioner Kionne McGhee and other elected officials attended the event to show their support and promote available resources.

“These are women who are not only playing an indispensable role, but they are women who need special support,” Levine Cava said. “So whether you’re overseas or whether you’re right here in our community, especially in South Dade, we are here for you. As mayor, I will do my very best to make sure you’re not forgotten.”

“[Hearing the speakers] almost brings me to tears, because every time I see great women – such as you out there now – who are continuously fighting, I know the hell you’ve been through,” said McGhee. “But you’re taking the hell you’ve been through to create a heaven for the future.”