THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
By Yvonne C. Harper
Dedicated to Shelby D. Harper Reitz
The Long and Winding Road
It happens in everyone’s life: A moment that sends you crashing to your knees. Not falling… not kneeling… not bowing, but a crash that comes with knowing that you have been thrust onto a path not of your choosing.
For me, that moment happened in June 2008.
My daughter was in Florida; my son was at school; my husband was on some ocean sailing on a steel boat the size of several football fields. I returned to our less than 900 square feet home in the afternoon. I had worked that morning and so far, it had been a good day. I had about an hour before Garren would get out of school. I sat down at my small desk to email Paul when I noticed the blinking message light on the phone. I pushed the play button. A simple one sentence, “Call me when you get this message.” I looked at the time knowing it was early morning in Florida. I wasn’t too worried as I dialed the number to Shelby’s best friend’s mom. Those few seconds it took to connect the call, and then for Mary to answer were the last few seconds of peace our family would know for a while. The words that drifted over the miles through the lines of communication shattered whatever normalcy existed in a Navy family. Six words was all it took:
“Shelby was raped when she was 11,” were the words that sent me crashing to me knees.
Paul and I made the decision to send her home for the summer as a reprieve. She was 14, three years after we had moved to Japan in July 2005. Japan: A beautiful country we had lived before and eager to return to given Paul was to be deployed for most of the year. When deciding where to go next, Japan was an easy choice: it was safe… or so we thought.
We arrived in the middle of summer. Upon stepping out of the airport, we were immediately enveloped in a humid, sticky heat that stems from an area brimming with people, cars, trains and industry. The children were tired, as was I having made the journey from Florida to Japan via Alabama and Washington without Paul, as he had left Florida in March. A familiar face greeted us from our days on Guam. Our friend retrieved us, our many bags and loaded us in his van – and unbeknownst to me at the time, the journey into the abyss began.
Had I known the journey that awaited us, I would have turned around and boarded the plane back to Florida, but life isn’t like that… life is taking one step at a time moving forward – so that’s what we did – moved forward to start a new chapter in our lives.
However, at that time I was merely eager to get the two-hour drive to the base done so we could check into the Navy Lodge, find a bite to eat and drift into sleep that I knew would be interrupted at 2 a.m. because my body was still on Florida time. But I was comforted by the knowledge that although we arrived without being able to greet Paul, we would see him soon enough in September.
The days that followed were filled with activities that accompany military life be it across the state, across the country or around the world. Carrying records to medical, dental, schools; sitting in indoctrination; taking a driver’s license test that would mean I was the “professional” driver in a country filled with “amateurs.” Buying a vehicle, registering, titling and insuring the vehicle; moving from the lodge to military housing one third the size of the home we’d left; receiving our belongings and unpacking boxes, deciding where it all should go.
I didn’t need much help because I’d been doing this since I was 18 and knew the process. I am also quite independent and stubborn, reluctant to ask for help and be perceived as “that kind of wife.” The kind that couldn’t do anything for herself… that was most assuredly not me so headlong I plunged into the life of living overseas again with no friends, no contacts, no job – just me and my two children, an 11-year-old beautiful and tender-hearted girl, and a 5-year-old energetic, good-hearted boy.
The move was hardest on my daughter. Moves were always hard for her – she dreaded leaving behind what was familiar as well as friends. Quiet by nature, and a lot like her father, she would hang back in a crowd and wait… wait for someone to say hello or wait until she found one she thought would accept her hand of friendship. When she found that friend, she latched on and remained loyal. This explains why she waited three years to tell her secret… waited until she was in familiar territory, in the sanctuary of her friend’s room.
But in that hot month of July, I never would’ve have imagined what path awaited us as we began our journey in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
After a flurry of activity getting the children settled, all belongings put in their place and a few leisurely days by the base pool, summer came to a close with the first day of school. The first day of school isn’t officially the end of summer, but it marks a period where I realize that my children are starting a new school year, where adventures and learning await them – or so I thought.
I walked my daughter and son to school that morning. Our townhome was across the street from the school, so it was a quick walk. The sun was brightly shining, and the red top was awash in a sea of children from kindergarten to sixth grade. I could tell many of the children knew each other, but there were a few scared expressions of the children who had transferred in during the summer. My young daughter was one of them. She hadn’t really had time to make friends in the busy month preceding school, and trepidation cast a heavy veil across her face. Her brother, six years her junior, on the other hand, fell into line without missing a beat. He still had a bit of separation anxiety, but his teacher wonderfully took command and he immediately took to her. Shelby was not so fortunate. From where I stood next to my youngest, I could see the lost, scared look on her face.
“Will they like me? Will I fit in? Will I make a friend?” were the questions that lingered on her face.
She stood out not only for being new, but because she wasn’t “dolled” up like many of the other girls. Her flawless skin was untouched with makeup; her long soft brown hair, kissed with highlights from the sun, stood in stark contrast to the colored hair and bright lips of many of the girls. I could tell by the look on her face she’d noticed the same. I’m sure she thought she was ugly compared to them. I longed to tell her, in a way that she would understand in her soul, that she was much more beautiful than any other girls. Not just for her appearance but because she had such a good heart.
She was the type of child who would try to comfort a hurting child or adult. She would draw pictures and write letters in a child’s scrawl telling the hurting child, or adult, how sorry she was for them and that she would pray for them. She would lovingly take her brother’s hand when walking with him. She would hug and hug often and give the most tender butterfly kisses. I prayed the other students would see her as I saw her and be kind.
I also suffered under the illusion that because we were on a military base, the other children would have some sort of empathy given they were all in the same boat, so to speak. And that those words of honor, character, integrity formed on the lips of so many officers and senior enlisted were real and taught to these students – as I had strived to impart them to my children. I would learn soon enough how very hollow those words were, and still are.
The children, teachers and lingering parents stood for morning colors and the pledge of allegiance before the principal took to the bull horn, welcoming all and promising a school year filled with exciting experiences and learning. I said a quiet prayer for my girl. I prayed the Lord to be with her and to give her a peaceful spirit; I prayed he would bring a friend her way: A friend like Marina, the friend she’d left in Florida. Suddenly, the bell rang, and the students walked in single file to their respective classes. She glanced in my direction and I gave her a smile and mouthed the words, “I love you.” She weakly smiled back, turned and walked away.
She made it through the first day and we settled into our new life. She seemed to be making friends and although the adjustment was not easy, I thought we were doing okay. We counted the days until Paul would return, albeit for a short time.
The day finally arrived in late September, but I didn’t tell our children. I merely said we needed to go to Yokosuka for some shopping. We cleaned the house – now they know if mom is cleaning the house, someone is coming home, but then they were unaware of my ritual – and made the 2-hour drive to the naval station that served as homeport to the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk.
After finding a place to park, we made our way pier side – we were three of hundreds that had come to greet their loved ones. At this point, Shelby knew. She knew she would get to see her daddy again, although I wasn’t sure Garren had put it all together yet. He was too enthralled by the massive ship to realize this wasn’t just a “field trip.” It was also hot and humid without a cloud in the sky. We found a few chairs under a tent and waited…
Finally, we saw him manning the rails and he spotted us pier side… after what seemed an eternity, he made his way off the ship and casually walked toward us, as I toward him – never wanting to seem too eager. But my little Shelby burst off sprinting toward her daddy. He saw her coming, dropped his bags and caught her as she jumped into his arms. Garren followed his sister’s lead… I hung back as I usually did, waiting. When our children had their fill of hugs, it was my turn. I simply put my arms around him, happy to be a family once again. The smell of the ship and aviation clothed him as much as his wash khakis. My nose in the nap of his neck, I breathed it all in and whispered, “I love you.”
Seven months never seems like a long time until you are separated from the one you love, and your little ones ask, “When’s daddy coming home?” Then it seems like seven years. I knew our time together would be short, just a few weeks, but I learned years before to live in the moment because it really does last only a moment and the future arrives much too soon.
I embraced Paul more strongly than I ever had before. Not just because I was happy to see him – I was – but because we had made it. I recalled at that moment how eight months prior we sat on our couch in our home in Florida and he said the words, “I’m going unaccompanied.”
I replied, “Then we won’t be here when you get back.”
It wasn’t an ultimatum; it was merely a fact.
He was finishing three years of recruiting duty and the job almost broke our marriage. The pressure of reaching a monthly quota, always followed by, “What do you got for next month?” was unrelenting. I was working and going to school full time. We were under financial strain. Merciless: There was never a moment when the pressure stopped and we almost broke under the strain of trying to keep it all together.
I had to get Garren from school shortly after our brief exchange and asked Paul if he would like to come with me after his statement of going to Japan unaccompanied. “Do you want me to come?” was his reply. A typical response to which I would typically answer, “I don’t care, come if you want.”
But this day was different. I knew my answer would determine the fate of our marriage. I don’t know how I knew that – I just did.
“Yes,” I said.
In the car, a Christian radio talk show was on. The kind that people called in asking questions in hopes of getting answers that would solve their problems. Neither of us was in the car at this time of day, nor were we in the car together at this time of day. One man called in and asked how he could save his marriage. Before I could hear the answer, I had to get out of the car to retrieve our son, but when I got back in the car there was a difference. Whatever the answer was, it had softened Paul’s heart toward me.
So, when I hugged him on the pier that day in the blazing heat with the Kitty Hawk as the backdrop, I knew we’d made it through. I loved him – still do – and was so grateful God had answered my silent prayer back in February. For all his idiosyncrasies, he was a good husband, a good father and I loved him. More importantly, he loved me.
We made the 2-hour drive back to Atsugi with the children talking over each other – each vying for their daddy’s attention. Driving, I occasionally glanced in the mirror at our beaming children and then to Paul, taking it all in and smiled.
We spent a few weeks together, getting reacquainted and simply enjoying the fleeting time. Before we knew it, we were bidding him goodbye again. As would become a ritual, we drove him to the Chief’s barracks where the bus would take the departing sailors to Yokosuka. We took small comfort that it was just for a couple of months and although he would miss Thanksgiving with us, he would be home for Christmas.
Then came that fateful day in late October.
Shelby seemed to be making friends, but she was still rather shy and reluctant to embrace her new life in Japan. The school was putting on a dance for kids her age and I suggested she go. She did not want to but at my insistence, she went. I put her on the bus that would take her to Camp Zama, an Army base about eight miles away. I felt confident she would have a good time with children her own age and would enjoy the time away from me. I felt she would be safe because there would be adults there and it was, after all, on a military installation.
In 1992, I was active duty Navy, stationed at HC-5 in Guam. I met Paul the day I checked into the Airframes shop. We were paired together to work, with me learning the H-46 by his side. Over time, the working relationship developed into a friendship. Almost a year later, it became something more. I was young and subscribed to the belief that “It’s my life,” and I could do as I pleased. Not always one to make wise choices, I drank and smoked too much, and cared too little for other people. I wasn’t mean, just indifferent, and selfish. My perspective and life changed with one word: pregnant.
I was 23 and in no position to have a baby. What did I possibly know about taking care of another human being when I was barely able to take care of myself? I’d already planned a trip to Saipan when I learned of my pregnancy. I decided to still go and spent several days driving around the small island trying to figure out what I was going to do. I drove, sat on the beach, visited the cliffs bearing the scars of Japanese fighters from days gone by, and drove some more.
On my last day, I came upon a small church overlooking the ocean. It wasn’t Sunday and I wasn’t sure if it would be open, but I parked the rental car and walked up to the doors. With a pull, the doors opened. I was greeted by stillness. Not another soul around. The sun shone through the church windows casting colored rays onto the pews. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d stepped foot inside a church. I’d grown up in the church but after a rather nasty experience I left, swearing that if “That’s what God is about, you can have him.” But there I was… in a church looking for answers.
I slowly walked to the front and stood for a moment before kneeling. Knees on the floor, head in my hands, I began to cry, and pray. “God, I don’t know what to do,” were the pitiful words I spoke. In the stillness of the church, with the afternoon sun shining through the windows I heard the words, “Have this baby.” Taken back, I replied, “Have you seen my life? I can’t have this baby. What do I know of raising a child?” Again, the words as clear as a finely tuned bell said, “Have this baby.” Although it had been a long time since I prayed, I knew who spoke those words. There I was, scared, uncertain yet there He was, quietly saying, “Have this baby.”
I cried. Cried for myself, cried for the person I’d become, cried for this baby whose life I held in my hands, but again, the words “Have this baby” echoed through the church. Finally, I replied, “If I have this baby, you have to be with me because I can’t do this on my own.”
And so it was. I flew out the next day knowing I would have this child and knowing that this child was God’s first and that He would watch over her, protect her, and help her grow into the woman He planned for her to be. I told Paul of my decision. I stressed it was not for him and I expected nothing of him. I was simply going to make the right decision… after years of making wrong choices, I was going to make the right one this time.
Eight months later January 7, 1994, on a beautiful sunny day, I welcomed my daughter and we began our lives together, her and me, and then her daddy.
The day I brought her home to my apartment in Guam, I was sure I would be a horrible mom. In the hospital, I had put her diaper on backgrounds. I thought, “Oh Lord, what am I doing? I can’t even put her diaper on the right way.”
I had six weeks with her before I returned to work. I soaked in those moments like a sponge soaking up water. I rocked her and sang “Amazing Grace” because it was the only song I could remember. It was a song I would sing to her at bedtime for the next 12 years.
Shelby was a joy to be around. She had a sweet disposition with a lightness about her. She was curious. She was creative. She had a love for the Lord that only a child could have. Unquestioning, accepting of His love. She wanted to please and to be liked, and she was liked by all who knew her. I loved this girl that God had such graciously given to me. My life was changed because of her. Without her I don’t know if I would have made it much longer given the road I was traversing. But there she was… a ray of sunshine.
She had her moments to be sure, but they were few and far between… I enjoyed just being with her. Wanting to be a mom more than I sailor, I got out of the Navy a year and half after her birth. I effortlessly transitioned from sailor to mom and my focus became to be the best mom I could be and to support Paul who was going to make a career in the Navy.
Over the years, I’ve heard people say, “If only I’d stayed in…” or “Those were the best years of my life.” For me, I never regretted my decision to get out, because it was right.
I went crashing to my knees upon hearing those words. The lights came on and all the pieces fell into place completing the puzzle. The picture that had eluded me for three years now became clear.
“You only know what you know.” A phrase oft said by Paul. Now I knew. And the picture was an ugly one indeed. The conversation lasted just a few minutes – I was left on the floor with a broken heart and all I could think of doing was holding my girl who was thousands of miles away.
Still holding the phone, I dialed a number I knew without needing to look up. God has blessed me with two very dear women for friends, and the ringing phone was answered with a groggy “hello.” Although it was early in the morning on her end, I knew she would answer.
“Robin,” I began choking back the tears. “Shelby was raped.”
I couldn’t call Paul because he was deployed and unreachable by phone, at least on my end. After pouring out my angst like a broken water main pouring out water, I pushed “end” on the phone.
I wept. Crying does not describe my tears. On the floor, hugging my knees, I wept… and prayed.
Garren was still in school but I knew what I needed to do. One quickly learns through the military that when a crisis happens, meltdowns don’t solve any problems, so I collected and picked myself off the floor. Sitting down at the computer, I emailed Paul and told him he needed to call me, that it was urgent.
Paul called that evening from the ship. The crackling phone line made conversing difficult, and we never knew when we would get disconnected. My voice cracked with emotion as I told him what had happened. Silence… then the words, “You need to go to her, I’ll follow.”
I went to some travel site and bought two round-trip tickets to Florida. Work. School. Emails. Calls were hastily made to arrange a leave of absence from work for me and to let Garren’s teacher know he would miss the last week of school.
Forty-eight hours later, Garren and I sat at Narita Airport waiting to board the plane that would take me to my Shelby. Unaware of what had happened or why we were flying to Florida, Garren was simply eager to board the plane to begin an adventure in Florida. From my seat in the airport, I could see the plane taxing up to the gate. It would be a little while before we were called to board – I looked down at the Bible in my lap and continued reading the book of Job.
Shelby came home from the dance and seemed okay. I’m sure I asked how it went, but I do not recall any specific answer.
Then a change came over her. First it was the clothes. Dark clothes replaced the colored ones and long-sleeves became the norm. Going into winter, there was nothing suspicious about this but as winter turned into spring and then summer, it seemed odd, and I questioned her nonstop about it. Her attitude became darker as well, very brooding and unpredictable. One moment she had a smile, the next minute she was withdrawn and would pull inside herself.
Her language became vulgar. Not in front of me but in the journal she kept. Yes, I snooped. I pried. I searched her room to find an answer to the question, “Why?” Why this sudden change in the daughter I knew?
I also noticed superficial cuts in the soft flesh of her arm. Upon asking her, she snapped a reply that she and her friends were playing in the woods, down by the river. It wasn’t really a river, more like a creek that ran through the base. I declared it off limits.
She became disobedient, argumentative, sullen. The Shelby I knew, the light-hearted, joyful Shelby had been replaced with a person I didn’t recognize. Always a good student with never a letter sent home, I suddenly found myself having discussions with her teachers about her attitude and lack of work. She had always been a good student, respectful of her teachers and thoughtful of other students. As time wore on, the ugliness, the anger, the sadness seemed to engulf her.
I came home from work one afternoon to find she had colored her beautiful hair black – as black as the depths of a cavern. I promptly took her back to the hairdresser to get rid of it, but it looked worse than before because it was then a black with shades of pukish yellow. Although that seemed to be the style, it just didn’t fit her.
“What is going on with you? What happened? Is there anything I need to know? Whatever is going on, tell me, I love you.”
“Nothing! Leave me alone!” was the usual answer.
Day by day, she seemed to be fading into a world of darkness and despair, but I knew not why. “What’s the problem?” I would ask time and time again – sounding like a scratched record that has been played too many times, causing the needle to get stuck on that one spot, before jumping back, repeating a few seconds of the tune before jumping back again.
In my desperation, I would say, “I don’t know what happened, but whatever it is, you need to get over it.” How those words must have hurt her, searing a mark on her heart.
Every day seemed to be a battle.
Entering the seventh grade meant boarding a bus each morning for the trip to Camp Zama to attend school, and then again in the afternoon to return to NAF Atsugi. Her grades slipped, but she managed to pass.
She got a job delivering the Stars and Stripes newspaper and each day we would walk together as she delivered the daily news. She talked of nightmares she had, things she saw during the waking hours. I couldn’t understand what it all meant.
I would catch a glimpse of small cuts on her arm and ask her about them. Always the answer was “nothing.” I didn’t know about “cutting” then and what it meant when a child would cut. Her hair hid her face and my constant words were “Pull you hair back – get it out of your face!”
Thinking if she had another person to talk to, it would help, we went to the base Chaplain. They would talk, but nothing of substance came of their talks – at least nothing that could tell me what was going on. I thought it was a combination of her daddy being gone so often, moving, feeling like she didn’t fit in, and puberty. I had always heard the teenage years could be difficult. What did I know?
At the end of her seventh-grade year, I made the decision to home school her through the Florida Virtual School program.
I thought if I got her out of the school that seemed to be a cesspool of raging hormones and meanness, it would help her.
We took day trips. Trips to hot baths, trips to China Town in Yokohama, we even climbed Mount Fuji together where we reached the summit together. She took immense joy in knowing she had made it to the top before several Marines who were also climbing that day. We went to the movies on base.
We took an impromptu trip to Sydney, Australia to meet Paul for a port call during the summer of 2007. During those ten days, she smiled and laughed. She climbed the Sydney Bridge with her daddy, as Garren and I ferried over to Manly Beach. We ventured to the Blue Mountains, basking in God’s beauty. We ate pizza at a little pizzeria that was reminiscent of Mama Elios in Sicily. We spontaneously went for a “speed” boat ride in the Sydney Harbor. Her hair wiped around like a tornado and she squealed with delight.
Boarding the plane back to Japan I thought she was okay. “This is just what we needed,” I quietly said. But no sooner did the wheels touch the runway in Japan, the darkness reappear. What I thought was a “cure” only ended up being the eye of the storm. We were once again thrust into the other side of the hurricane and as with most hurricanes, this side of the storm would prove far worse than the front side.
During the next year, there were moments when I glimpsed the Shelby I knew. But those moments were always brief… never lasting more than a day or two, or even just a few minutes before the darkness would return, casting a veil of sadness and anger over her.
She started running, taking to it like a dehydrated horse takes to the water of a clear stream.
During this time, her daddy came and went. He would be in for a few months in the winter before leaving for six months. He’d then return for a few weeks in late summer before going out again in the fall. Days went by…
I sat in the terminal at Narita waiting to board the plane. I had my Bible with me; I opened it to the book of Job. I began reading… Job was a righteous man, a man of God, yet he suffered mightily. He lost his family, his land, his livestock, and was physically inflicted… throughout the book, Job’s “friends” relentlessly questioned him. They assumed he was suffering because of some great sin. Yet, in Job’s suffering, he never lost his faith. He surely questioned why he was suffering, but he never forsook God. His determination to hold onto his faith in God amid such suffering was something I needed to read because I was surely questioning God. “Why, why, why?” Like a child incessantly asks a parent why the sky is blue, there I was questioning why. Why had God let this evil thing happen to my Shelby? His Shelby? The Shelby whose heart was pure and whose love for Him could not be questioned. I was the pertinacious child who would not let go of that one-word question.
We boarded the plane, taxied down the runway and lifted into the air. How many planes had I been on over the years – too many to count, yet the miracle of flight never failed to amaze me. As I watched the earth fade away, my mind went to Shelby. What would I say when I saw her? Garren eventually drifted off to sleep with me as his pillow. We landed in Tampa a day later after a stopover in Dallas. I was exhausted. Garren on the other hand was excited in the way only an 8-year-old can be at seeing his family again and having a bit of summer fun. He was also bubbling over at the thought of escaping the last few days of school. On any other trip his excitement would’ve been contagious – as I outwardly matched his enthusiasm, my thoughts were on Shelby.
My sister’s friend picked us up from the airport. I had not told anyone other than her and my dear friends Robin and Jayne that I was coming home.
An hour later, she dropped us off at my mom’s house. I knew the route from the airport to my mom’s by heart. I watched the city become the country, passing familiar scenery. It was early afternoon, the sun shining with a few clouds accentuating the Florida sky. I love Florida and loved returning to my home state but not so much this time. As we pulled into my mom’s driveway, I was relieved to see her truck gone. I wanted a few minutes to think, to compose myself, to figure out what the plan was. Knowing where the key was hidden, I let ourselves in and took our bags to the back bedroom. Garren embraced being unconfined and promptly began playing outside.
I sat on the couch, praying I would know what to say when I saw my Shelby. Garren was inside by the time my mom’s truck pulled into the drive; with delight in his eyes, he ran outside so he could be the first to greet his Grammy and sister. As usual, I hung back letting him take in this reunion. I could see the surprise in my mom’s eyes. How I wanted to fall into her arms, but we just didn’t have that kind of relationship at that time.
Shelby saw me and started crying. I went to her, taking her petite body into my arms. The hug was not one of happiness, but one of sorrow. My Shelby: Hurt, broken, angry… all I could do was hold her. A little while later, we sat on the bed in the spare room. I took her hand in mine, pushed back her hair from her face, tucking it behind her left ear and simply said, “I know.”
She collapsed into me and wept. I held her and cried with her. There we were, mother and 14-year-old daughter, crying. I told her I loved her. I told her how sorry I was that she went through such a thing. I told her I was here and it would be alright. Not that I believed it, but if I said it enough times, maybe it would be true.
I had no plan, no course of action. Me, the person who always had the answer, who always thought that once the problem was known, the answer could be found – there I sat holding my daughter, with no answers and no plan.
Memories of another time came flooding back: Images of Shelby laughing as her daddy and I tossed her to each other in Tumon Bay in Guam – her squeals of delight at taking flight for a few seconds before being caught by her daddy and then me. Laughter when she played in the snow for the first time in Japan; building snowmen then having snowball fights. Her sitting on my lap as we swung higher and higher, “Flying high in the sky, we’ll look back and wave goodbye…” we’d sing. The sweet moment when she met her brother for the first time, the loving way she took his little hand in hers, looking at me with such tenderness. Surprise etched on her face when she came home from a weekend at her aunt’s house to find her room made over with light purple and blue walls, shiny beaded curtains… making cupcakes with her sitting on the counter helping to decorate the tops… mostly just her smile.
The smile that had faded with the burden she carried each day in silence. As I held her, I longed to see that smile again, the smile that came effortlessly, not the forced smile for show. I had no plan, but I knew we needed a haven. Family can be a tremendous blessing sometimes and a burden other time. In their efforts to be a support, they sometimes say too much, when a simple hug will suffice. I knew my mom’s love for me was unmatched, but I couldn’t bear the questions, the advice, the “you need to…” or “If you’d only done…” I needed a place where no judgment would pass, a place of acceptance for all our faults, so within a few days we were driving north to Jacksonville where I knew we would find that place.
We arrived at Jayne’s doorstep. She embraced us and I felt at home. I knew here we could find a moment of peace in the midst of the storm. I needed this more than Shelby because I needed time to think, to absorb what I’d discovered, to pray with my friend, to have a cup of coffee in the quiet of her kitchen.
Shelby and Hiroki, Jayne’s son, picked up where they’d left of years earlier. They’d known each other practically their whole lives. Shelby was three and Hiroki six when they first met. “I’m going to marry Hiroki,” Shelby declared when she was just five years old.
I was sitting in the back part of the chapel in Japan waiting for a Bible study to begin when I met Jayne for the first time. From the moment she walked in, I was taken by her attitude, her joyful spirit, and the smile that lit not only her face but the room. We met and she invited me over for lunch. Now I’m not one that generally accepts such invitations from someone I don’t know, but there was something about her… so I accepted.
Sitting at her table, eating a sandwich, I instantly liked her. From that moment, I have been blessed to call her friend. I guess God knew there would be a time when I would need to take shelter in her presence… that I would need her strength and faith in God when mine was waning.
We talked for hours and I poured out my soul to her. She didn’t judge. She didn’t interrogate. She didn’t tell me what to do or what I could’ve done differently. She simply listened. We cried, laughed and prayed. Shelby and Hiroki reminisced and caught up on each other’s lives. Garren delighted in swimming and having his “brother” to play with. It didn’t matter that Hiroki was not his blood-brother, he thought of him as a brother. And Hiroki was so gracious with him, playing and suffering Garren’s pranks with the love of an older brother.
Logically, I knew what had happened to Shelby was neither my fault nor hers. I knew that faith is only strengthened through adversity, much like steel is strengthened through fire. I knew that God was there, that he held every tear in the palm of His hand; that we would only get through this with Him at the helm. I knew that, but my heart questioned and doubted at times.
How could such a loving God allow this to happen to a child who loved, trusted and believed in Him? I was angry that He allowed it when He could’ve stopped it. Did this evil come to her because of a past act on my part? Was my child being punished for the way I had lived my life before she even came to be? These and a thousand other questions raced around my mind, round and round, like a race car circles the same track, over and over and over…
My heart ached for my child, the child I was to protect and keep safe from harm. A child I had failed in that promise. I wanted so desperately to trade places with her, to take away the pain, the memory, to turn back the hands of time to that moment when I put her on that bus. But no matter what I wanted, I knew we could not go back. Time is always moving forward. It does not stop, and it cannot be rewound. All I was left with was a child whose heart had been broken into a million pieces that had been scattered to the four corners of the earth.
“God, only you can get us through this,” was my meager supplication.
“To you oh Lord, I lift my soul. In you oh God, I place my trust. Do not let me put to shame… don’t let my enemies triumph over me. My hope is you… Show me your ways. Guide me in truth, in all my days, my hope is you,” echoed a song by Third Day.
After finding solace at Jayne’s, Shelby and I set out for Pensacola. Jayne had graciously offered to allow Garren to stay with her for a few days while Shelby and I went to Pensacola. I knew Pensacola was where we would probably end up, so I wanted to begin a network of resources should we return earlier than Paul’s orders allowed. It is always hard for me to leave my children anywhere, but I knew in Jayne’s care, he would be safe… and he might learn a few things, like how to garden or clean.
Six hours on I-10 can be a tortuous experience when all one has time to do is think. It’s amazing where the mind goes when left to wander with no restraints. Shelby and I talked a little bit about what happened. I asked the who, what, when and where questions, to which she sparingly gave information. I think she was still coming to terms with the fact that I now knew what happened. The weight of it all was still heavy, but I prayed she would allow me to help her carry that weight.
But mostly there was silence. I glanced at her from time to time when she finally fell into a slumber. What was she thinking? Was she dreaming? Was it a peaceful nap?
My mind drifted back to when I first met her daddy. I had just transferred into the squadron and I was getting a pass down from the Air Frames Leading Petty Officer. In walked Paul. We were introduced and I immediately took a dislike to him. He has a way of looking at people that convey one message, when that message may not be accurate. I perceived his look to mean, “Oh great, another woman.”
“Here we go again I thought,” with contempt for this man I didn’t even know yet.
Being a female in a male dominated job, I’d begrudgingly accepted that I would be judged and compared to the female that preceded me at each command. It was a judgment not bestowed upon the men, and I didn’t like having to prove myself as a “woman that could carry her own toolbox” at each new duty station. But it came with the territory, and I always proved my mettle by carrying my own load and working.
Eventually we were paired to do some work on an aircraft and I slowly got to know this man, and I found to my surprise that I liked him. While he was indeed good looking, there was something else about him that appealed to me. Maybe it was the way he laughed, or the mischievous look in his eye when he was up to something. Maybe it was how he kept certain parts of himself closed to the rest of the world. Whatever it was, I was hooked.
Glancing back at my sleeping Shelby, I recalled how very much she looked like her daddy when she was born. She still bore a strong resemblance to him, but as she grew, I could see more of my family in her.
“You look just like your mom,” she heard more often than she cared to, I’m sure.
Really, what 13-year-old wants to be told she looks like her mom when she’s trying to develop her own personality and become her own person? She must have cringed each time she heard those words.
But she really had a look all her own. Although her hair was a mess of a color, her hazel eyes, small nose and ears, and full mouth were all hers. She was indeed a beautiful child. I prayed the beauty within would be able to make its way to the surface again. At the moment it was buried beneath an insidious ugliness that was slowly consuming her.
I reached over, softly touched her face and took her hand in mine. The miles stretched out before me as I chased the sun.
“God, please be with her. Guide me, help me,” I silently said.
I wasn’t well versed in the aftermath of a rape, let alone the rape of a child, my child. I knew I needed outside council: Council from someone who dealt with this on a regular basis. I also knew I needed Paul. I pride myself on being able to handle anything on my own, but this was one situation that I knew I could not handle alone. Simply put, I needed him. Paul has a quiet strength. It’s not loud, boisterous or boastful. It’s just there, quiet and calm. I needed that.
When we pulled into Robin’s driveway with the afternoon sun slipping into the western sky, I again felt at home. Out of the house she walked… we got out of the car and greeted our friend. She was like a mother to Shelby, much in the way Jayne was. Again, no judgment, just acceptance.
I first met Robin standing in line at church one Wednesday evening in 1999. Dinner at church was a weekly event, and I had been asked by the preacher’s wife if I knew her. I couldn’t recall ever meeting her. Come to find out, she and her family were returning to Florida from Japan. After thumbing through the files of my memory bank, I remembered briefly talking to her once. I also recalled seeing her, Mark, her husband, and their two girls in church. She was hard to miss standing at 6 feet with red hair. But our paths never crossed in Japan. Again, God’s timing is perfect.
So, I struck up a conversation with her that Wednesday evening, comparing notes of having lived in Japan. Then for the second time, I did something I normally do not do. I called her. From there our friendship developed into one that I cherish every day.
Jayne and Robin: Two women of faith who are always there. It doesn’t matter that we may go months without talking or seeing each other. I know that when we do talk to or see each other, time and distance melts away as ice melts in the hot Florida sun and it’s as if no time has passed. Only God can bring such friends and for them I am eternally grateful. And they both love my children.
A week had passed since hearing the words, “Shelby was raped.” We had gone from Japan to Tampa to Jacksonville to Pensacola in a matter of days. I was exhausted. Exhausted from trying to hold it all together, trying to make the right choices, tired of mentally swimming in a pool of questions, rage and hurt. I could only imagine what Shelby must have been going through for three years, given I could barely stand under the weight of just one week.
That night, with Shelby tucked in bed in the spare bedroom, I emailed Paul. “Please come – I need you here.”
With those words, he spoke to his commanding officer and was flown off the ship. He boarded a Florida bound plane a week after I had. He flew into Jacksonville and spent a day with Jayne and Mike, reuniting with Garren. Jayne and Hiroki drove Paul and Garren to Tallahassee where I met them. We had lunch at the Cracker Barrel, listening to Garren’s stories of how he helped Ms. Jayne in the yard and got to go to McDonald’s as a reward for his work. With lunch over, we prayed, hugged and went our separate ways – Jayne heading east homeward bound, and us west: destination unknown.
“I let it fall, my heart. And as it fell, you rose to claim it. It was dark and I was over, until you kissed my lips and you saved me,” Fire to Rain, Adele.
Standing in Robin’s kitchen with Paul at midnight I came undone. The toll of the last week was too much and I fell into his arms and sobbed. He held me saying nothing as there were no words that could be uttered. Sometimes there just aren’t words and silence is golden. Although I knew it was fleeting, I felt secure in the arms of this man I loved… even though they were ephemeral moments.
How his heart must have ached, but stoicism held him together so he could comfort me. He knew how precious Shelby was to me, how much I loved her and how I would have done anything to undo what had been done. That is not to say he did not dearly love his girl, as he did, but his nature is such that when he sees me or his family hurting, he puts his own feelings on the back burner.
“What are we going to do,” I finally choked out.
Neither one of us knew. We were in unchartered territory. Finally, when the tears were exhausted, we slept. But it was not a peaceful sleep.
We awoke the next morning to a beautiful day, birds chirping, people busying themselves for the day. Funny how time simply marches on to a cadence all its own – a cadence we were just trying to keep pace with. We were not the first to have such evil touch our lives, nor will we be the last, but at that time it felt as if no one else could possibly know or understand.
We set out to contact local rape counselors and through the advice of Robin’s daughter, we contacted the Gulf Coast Kids House. Upon making an appointment, we sat in the counselor’s office, telling our story, seeking guidance. We knew we would need to return to Japan, but we didn’t know if we would stay, what resources would be available, or even what questions to ask upon our return. There we sat… questions swirling through my mind and tears backing up.
The counselor listened, nodded, asked questions and gave us suggestions on what to look for in a counselor should we return. Shelby seemed to withdraw even deeper inside her. When she at first seemed relieved to know we knew, she now became angry. She redirected the anger she had toward herself to us, and understandably so. She accused us of not being there to protect her, as we had always promised. She hurled words of hate toward me for not “getting it” and to her daddy for not “being there.” This marked the beginning of a war that would be waged for the next two years.
I knew in my heart she didn’t mean what she said but it pierced nonetheless, because I was hurling those accusations at myself as well. What she didn’t know is I blamed myself more than she did.
We spent a few days looking at houses, sitting on the beach, steeling ourselves for what was to come. Finally, it was time to bid ado to our friend for the drive to Tampa. I dreaded that drive, because I didn’t have answers to the questions that were surely awaiting us.
We spent the next couple of weeks visiting family and trying to make the best of a trip that was not at all the leisurely trip it would’ve been on any other occasion.
One day I found myself sitting on a bench with my dad overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on Anna Marie Island. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was visible; children were playing on the shoreline – memories of days gone by when I was little came rushing back.
I’d grown up in Duette, a place not then on the map, affectionately known as the ‘country’ in Manatee County; every summer we would trek the 50 plus miles to the beach. It wasn’t often, but I cherished those memories of taking my own flight as my dad threw me in the air.
“Do it again,” I would giddily say.
Or the times when we would get Kentucky Fried Chicken and sit under the pavilion as the afternoon sun cast shadows all about.
My parents divorced during my sophomore year in high school and those memories became even more cherished. The divorce was ugly as most seem to be, but my relationship with my dad remained solid and has only grown. My and my mom’s relationship always stood on shaky ground and while we do love each other, there was a distance. I keep myself just close enough to be involved, but far enough away to keep the hurt at bay. As much as I would have loved to sit next to my mom and hold her hand, I felt I would be peppered with questions, accusations and judgments.
So, I sat there with my dad telling our story. My dad: a man I admired and loved. Always supportive, never judgmental, he was always there. Be it two in the morning to answer a collect call from Sicily or sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, talking. The first time he took my Shelby into his arms and then held Garren as a sleeping infant, just being there.
As I told our story through tears I unsuccessfully fought to hold back, he took my hand. Father and daughter, again I found myself leaning on his strong shoulders. We both knew there was nothing he could do, but just sitting there… letting it all come out was enough at that moment.
During the trip Shelby suffered another blow. The friendship she cherished in Marina came to an end. Marina had been Shelby’s best friend and it was she who Shelby told her secret to. But her mother decided it was not a good idea for Marina to interact with Shelby given her anger. At this time Shelby could be explosive. Calm one minute, sullen the next and then angry, spitting out hurtful comments. Smiles were few and far between. If she felt threatened, in any way, she would react with vitriol anger.
I understood why Mary chose to end their friendship, and if the situation was reversed, I may have done likewise, but I was angry. Shelby needed this friendship. It was a lifeline for her; however, that last remaining thread to her “previous” life was cut. They have not talked since, although Shelby has wanted to, especially now. Maybe one day…
Joy, my sister, seemed to be the only family member other than my dad who got it. She didn’t make accusations; she didn’t give unwanted advice on how to parent or deal with Shelby.
“What can I do,” she asked.
Although there was nothing she could do, the honest, unconditional way in which she asked was enough. Eight years my junior, Joy had always held a part of my heart reserved only for her. It was easy with her. We didn’t have the history that my two older sisters and I shared. There was no left-over anger or resentment from our childhood.
Lying on our mom’s living room floor listening to Shelby talk, I looked at Joy and marveled at the woman she’d become. I saw her walking next to me on Bunker Hill Road, maybe 3 years old.
“You know Joy, if you cut your belly button, you’ll deflate.”
“Nuh-ah,” she said.
“Yes, you will. When you were in inside mommy, you were connected to her with an umbilical cord, and when you were born the doctors cut and tied it. So, if you cut it, you’ll deflate,” I said.
“No, you won’t,” she said in her small voice. “Really?”
“Yep,” I said. “Ask daddy if you don’t believe me.”
Running home, Joy stumbled over the words, “Daddy, will I deflate if I cut my belly button?”
Glancing at me, I nodded yes with a smile, but dad smiled, looked down at Joy and said, “No honey.”
On other walks or at bedtime, Joy would say, “Vonnie, tell me a story.”
And that would set me spinning words into a story just to elicit a laugh from her. We had good memories, and we grew into adulthood with a relationship that continued to blossom.
Her response was not surprising and was in stark contrast to the withering demands of “You need to set limits,” as if what we were experiencing was just normal teenage angst. “Yes, that’s the answer – how could I have missed it all this time. All I need to do is be firm, set limits and it will all be miraculously OK,” I sardonically thought, thanking the Lord for cementing my mouth shut.
We sent emails to the Fleet and Family Service Center in Yokosuka asking what resources were available for Shelby and us as a family. Not surprised, the answer was not many. Still, I wasn’t ready to separate our family, so with heavy hearts, we boarded the plane that would take us back to Japan a month after our arrival.
As it was three years earlier, we were welcomed by the hot, humid, heavy air of being in a place with too many trains, cars, people and pollution.
We were picked up by one of Paul’s co-workers and made the two-hour drive back to Atsugi. Shelby and Garren were groggy from the flight, but seemed happy to be back “home,” although I couldn’t escape the feeling that the worst was yet to come… and I was on a journey that would largely be walked without Paul. Not because he didn’t want to come along beside me, but because his first duty was to the Navy. Mission first, everything else second. He epitomized the words commitment, honor and integrity. While I deeply admired him for that, I began to harden to the Navy and the next couple years would only bear out what I knew but didn’t want to utter: we were alone in this and the Navy with all its slogans of “honor,” “family,” and “commitment” was a complete lie.
Jet lag… I awoke early the morning after our return. Attempts to return to sleep were futile so in the dark I slipped on some running gear, put on my iPod and went out for a run. Along the sidewalks with the sun not yet casting its rays in the eastern sky, I ran. I ran past the child development center that nine years earlier had been an open park – the same park Shelby built her first snowman. I ran past the golf course, along the flight line, back toward the commissary and exchange… I slowed to a walk once near our townhome.
No epiphany had illuminated my mind during the run, but at least I felt better, for the moment.
I slipped quietly inside, put some coffee on and showered. We had two days before Paul would have to return to his squadron deployed on the Kitty Hawk.
Hours later we sat in Dr. Jones office. I’d made an appointment with him that morning. I’d known him from my time as a field representative with University of Maryland University College. He was adjunct for UMUC and he was employed by the Navy as a counselor with the Fleet and Family Service Center. A squat man, he seemed personable enough when I’d dealt with him at UMUC. This cursory image of him allowed me to feel somewhat confident in his ability, but that quickly faded upon entering his office.
A printed picture of a tunnel with a light at the end was tacked to his door. The caption read “Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel really is a train.” I should have taken Shelby and left, but I was still tired from the trip, and so desperately needed some direction and I figured someone with a PhD must know something that could help us.
Entering his office, I sat next to Shelby, Paul took the chair across from us and Jones sat his portly body in his chair. Books with lofty titles of healing, self-actualization, mysticism and finding oneself filled his bookcase. Statues of Buddha sat on a shelf to his left, to his right more eastern figurines. Nothing in his small office gave the impression of hope, just clichés and eastern religious symbols.
With an encouraging look from Paul, I hastily went through the purpose of our visit. Shelby kept her head down, muttering answers. Jones replied his daughter had been through a similar situation – I felt comforted by this and thought, “Here is someone who would be empathetic.”
I asked if there were any child psychologist either on Atsugi or Yokosuka to which I was told there was not. It seemed we were stuck with what was available at the FFSC. We were adamant that Shelby did not want the rape reported, and after three years, what difference would it make. Paul and I wanted it reported, but Shelby did not. Maybe I should have made her report it anyway, but I sided with her on this point.
We made an appointment for Friday morning and bid Jones goodbye. None of us left the office feeling particularly optimistic, but it was a start. The next day, we said goodbye to Paul as he set out on his journey back to the boat.
Friday morning found Shelby and me sitting in Jones office once again.
“I want you to watch a short video from “The Secret,” he said.
I asked him what that was. He said it was about the power of a positive attitude. Not sure where this was going, I agreed that a positive attitude can indeed help any situation; although not a remedy, I agreed.
We went to a room with an oval table. Glenn Steward of Victim Advocacy joined us. He and Paul worked together during the late 90s at AIMD when we were stationed in Japan before. I liked him. More importantly, Shelby seemed to like him.
Around the table we sat, the lights dimmed, and the video began.
“The universe is yours… Put good thoughts into the universe and you can flip through the catalog of the universe and pick out what you want to happen in your life,” droned the narrator.
Interviews with people who had experienced only great things in life because of all the positive energy they emitted into the universe filled the screen.
Then the warning… bad things happen to a person when that person doesn’t emit enough positive energy.
“What the hell…” I thought in stunned silence.
Jones turned off the video after about ten minutes, looked at me with a beaming smile and uttering some nonsense about how it’s just about having a positive attitude.
“See, if you have a positive attitude, it’ll be okay.”
I turned to Shelby and much to my pleasure I could tell she had mentally checked out when the lights dimmed. I turned my attention to Jones and in measured terms told him he was full of more elephant dung than one finds at a circus.
“You’re telling me that if a person is raped it’s because she didn’t put enough positive thoughts into the universe,” I tersely said through clinched jaw. “I get how a positive attitude can determine how a day goes; say for example if I spill coffee on my pants before leaving the house in the morning. Do I rant and rave and ruin the rest of the day, or do I shrug, change my pants and get on with it? That I get, but what if I’m as positive as all get out and I’m driving to work. I’m at a red light, it turns green. I enter the intersection and some idiot runs his red light and rams into me and now I’m paralyzed. Is this because I didn’t put enough good thoughts into the universe? An 11-year-old gets raped because she didn’t put enough good thoughts into the universe?”
Jones sat there as did Gene without a word.
“Shelby, let’s go,” I said.
As we left the room, Gene followed us. I told Shelby to wait outside and I lit into Gene about the sheer insanity of a counselor inferring that rape is the result of not putting enough good thoughts into the universe.
“I’m not a counselor but isn’t that one of the main reasons a rape victim doesn’t tell. Because she’s afraid she will be blamed. Are you kidding me?” To say I was angry would be an understatement. I was seething, desperately trying to keep a lid on what would surely be Mt. Etna erupting in the hall.
“We are not seeing him again,” I said as I turned and walked out.
I would learn later that sexual assault is the most under reported crime with 54 percent of sexual assault cases going unreported. Take a moment to stop and truly think about that. More than half of rape victims, male or female, do not report they were sexually assaulted. Then there’s the 44 percent of the victims who are under the age of 18, with 15 percent of the 44 being children under the age of 12. Chances are, you have met or personally know someone who was raped or sexually assaulted.
According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail.
Rape is not reported for a myriad of reasons: fear, shame, denial, victims afraid of being blamed or no one will believe them.
The effects of rape range from depression to suicide, from post-traumatic stress disorder to eating disorders, promiscuity, drug or alcohol abuse, self-harm, sleep disorders or flashbacks among others. Unlike other crimes, a sexual crime is the most invasive of crimes because of the very nature of the crime. Other crimes are external and while the effects are real and are not diminished, a sexual crime invades a person’s being, stripes them of all dignity and security. When it happens to anyone, let alone a child, it can have devastating consequences that can last years.
So, to sit in a counselor’s office, who supposedly was schooled in counseling people who experienced trauma, and have that person infer my daughter’s rape was her fault sent me spiraling into an anger that only God could control.
However, I set the anger aside because I didn’t have time to deal with it. I needed to focus on what my next step would be.
We left FFSC and went home. Later that day I received a call from an investigator from Camp Zama who wanted to interview Shelby. Unbeknownst to me, Jones had reported her rape. The investigator was persistent in wanting to talk to Shelby, but I refused to let him.
Paul and I have argued over this point. Shelby was adamant about not wanting to report the rape. It had been three years, but she was still afraid. Besides, what could be done? In an effort to protect her, I declined to allow him access to her. Maybe I should have forced her to report the rape, but at the time, I did what I thought was best for her. I was not ashamed of her and I believed her, but I didn’t want to subject her to a male investigator questioning her every move of that night, making her feel again that it was her fault.
Would the perpetrator have been caught if she had reported it? I don’t know. Whoever he was, he is still free, living his life unencumbered by the burden he placed on my daughter that night. I take solace in the knowledge that we will all stand before the Lord and give account of our actions, and this person is no different. The anger is still there at what was done to her, but I put it out because to linger on it creates a desire to seek him out and exact my own revenge.
We returned to the FFSC a week later so see Mr. Smith, another counselor. He seemed kinder and more intuitive although he had no experience in dealing with rape trauma. Yet, Shelby started seeing him weekly and it seemed having someone to talk to helped her some. But her moods were still unpredictable. One day or minute, she was fine, the next she was angry, and then sad. She still wasn’t sleeping, and it was taking a toll on her. She also cut.
I began to hide the knives, scissors, anything she could use to cut. She continued to wear long sleeve shirts, but I would examine her arms regularly.
The new school year brought new challenges. She was on the cross-country team and she’d joined Army ROTC. She thrived in both but floundered in her studies.
Garren seemed to take it all in stride. He played soccer and flag football. He played with his friends, got into scuffles and annoyed his sister whenever he could, but his heart for her was as pure as the first snow of the winter season.
He entered third grade as Shelby began her high school years.
Paul was still gone. As much as I loved what the Navy had done for us – bringing us together – I was tiring of bearing this alone. I hadn’t made any real close friends in Japan, so I was hard pressed to find another in whom to genuinely confide. As independent as I was, even I needed a friend.
As if on cue, I met Lesley. I had first seen her and her family at the lodge during our stay there three years earlier. During the latter part of the summer, I’d run into her again and we struck up a conversation. A friendship developed over the next eight months and I also gained a workout/walking partner. Many mornings after our children were at school, we’d walk several miles, talking, laughing and at times crying. She was a great sounding board and another woman of faith.
Shelby continued to see Smith, but no real progress was being made. We were simply hovering. Not landing, not taking off but merely hovering without a plane captain to direct us as in the right direction we should go.
I also spent time with Smith.
“How are you doing?” he’d ask.
“Fine,” I’d answer.
After explaining that sometimes Shelby would lash out, he told me he could show me how to subdue her in a manner that would leave no marks or harm her.
“No, I’d rather not,” I dryly replied.
Summer turned to fall, and we looked forward to Paul’s return. It was to be his first Thanksgiving home in three years.
On the night of Nov. 16, Shelby was in a mood. Sometimes it was hard to differentiate between her pushing the boundaries and her just lashing out in anger. I’d asked her if she had homework.
“No,” she snapped.
“Bring me your folders,” I said.
“No,” came her sharp reply.
“That’s OK; I’ll just go get your backpack.”
Up the stairs I began with Shelby at my heels yelling. I did not raise my voice but told her it was not a choice and either she showed me her work, or I’d look. A standoff occurred at the door of her room.
“Shelby became quite defiant, yelling that she did not have to listen to me, that she hated me, her brother, her dad, and that she did not want to live in our home. At one point she stood within inches of me and after repeatedly asking her to step back and go downstairs, I finally told her I would spank her if she did not get out of my face. I did not raise my voice to her, but I was stern. She did not move, and I got her dad’s belt and as I went to spank her, she pulled back and the belt hit her arm. At that point, I put the belt down and went downstairs,” excerpt from report, Dec. 13, 2008.
“This is insane,” I thought. I turned, walked to my room, put the belt on the bed and went downstairs to call Glenn.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said to him on the phone after explaining what happened. “I’m tired of the battles.”
We spoke for several minutes before ending the conversation. I told Shelby she needed to give me her phone – the lifeline of all teenagers.
The next day, she kept her scheduled appointment with Smith. She had taken her phone and when she called from Smith’s office to say she’d arrived, I asked her where it was.
“In my room,” but that wasn’t true because I had looked and knew she had it with her. I told her I was disconnecting the service.
Within a couple of hours, I received a call from Naval Security.
“Mrs. Harper, Shelby will not be coming home tonight. It has been alleged that you abused her. You will need to leave so she can pick up some things,” he said.
“I am not leaving, and I did not abuse her,” came my short reply.
A short time later, an investigator was sitting at my kitchen table asking me what had happened.
The investigator looked familiar and he said the same, and he asked if he knew me. After a few minutes of collective remembering, we realized he was the person who’d driven us to the airport in June when we went to Florida. I could tell he did not want to be sitting at my table taking a report he knew to be wrong, but he had a job to do. I was not upset with him, just the situation.
I relayed the events of the previous night. He knew there was nothing to it, Smith knew there was nothing to it, but still Smith made the call to base security alleging the abuse charges.
Counselors and educators are required by law to report suspected child abuse, but Smith knew I didn’t abuse Shelby, yet he still placed that call. This was ironic considering I had discovered a few weeks earlier that Shelby had told a friend of hers who had told her mom, a Department of Defense teacher. That mom called neither me nor security as she was required by law. To think that I could’ve known at least a year earlier that Shelby was raped was infuriating to me and I had relayed that information to Smith. His response was that I needed to let go of the anger. No phone call reporting her for failing to report what she had learned about Shelby. The system was so warped it belonged on a Saturday Night Live skit.
“Maybe if I’d had him teach me those subduing techniques,” I internally mused.
At the time I thought Shelby had learned how to use the system to get what she wanted all along, away from me and out of the house. She came home escorted by base security and gathered a few belongings. I hugged her under the watchful eye of the MP.
“I love you,” I said as she stood still as stone.
A flurry of calls later to the Skipper’s wife, and from Paul, I fell into bed exhausted.
“Mommy, where’s Shelby,” asked Garren lying next to me as he always slept in our bed when his daddy was gone.
“She’s staying at a friend’s house for a few days.”
Replaying the events of the night I thought of Paul. The Navy is keen on holding leadership accountable and if a man is perceived in lacking leadership in the home, it stands to reason he can’t lead sailors. Paul gave his heart and soul to the Navy, leaving each duty station better than he’d found it. As a recruiter, he’d taken a failing station to being number three in the region. Upon entering VFA-192, his leadership turned around a crumbling squadron. Now he was doing the same at HS-14. I did not like that he would have to tell his commanding officer the drama unfolding in our family, but I also knew from having been there and done that, it is far better to keep the chain of command informed rather than being blindsided. It was new territory I was entering because I’d always kept our family separate from Paul’s work. We socialized enough, but I didn’t get involved with his squadrons, I didn’t call him every hour while he was at work, I didn’t make requests of anyone or join any wives’ groups… I simply took care of our family and created a life for us that was separate from the Navy.
I was involved on a peripheral level. I sent packages to Paul that included goodies for his sailors; I baked cookies or muffins for his sailors and sent hand-signed Christmas cards to the single sailors every year; I made myself available upon request, but I kept largely to myself otherwise. I’m sure this was perceived as aloof by other wives, but it’s just who I was and still am. I had a few trusted friends; I didn’t need a slew of acquaintances.
A couple of hours later I was awakened by the phone ringing. It was Shelby.
“You turned my phone off,” she loudly said.
“Yes,” I wearily replied. “And it will stay off until further notice.”
“I hate you.”
“That’s OK, because I love you.”
I didn’t sleep well and in the early morning hours I finally gave up hope of getting any sleep, so I got out of bed, went downstairs, made some coffee and sat outside listening to the world wake up. Paul was flying in that morning with several others who were lucky enough to catch a ride on the squadron’s H-60s. I was grateful because it saved us a trip to Yokosuka to pick him up.
When it was time, I awoke Garren who scrambled out of bed excited to see his daddy again.
“Is Shelby coming,” he asked.
“Not this time.”
We both dressed. I always tried to look nice, and while from the neck down I think I’d accomplished that feat, my eyes were witness to a lack of sleep and mental exhaustion.
Garren and I made the short drive to the other side of the flight line and made our way into the hanger. I could see the helos coming in… one by one they landed and taxied over to the hanger. Paul emerged from one helo and walked toward me and I toward him, but again, I let Garren run ahead to be scooped up by Paul. I was doing well keeping it all together, but when we hugged, the tears came. I held him tightly trying to compose myself. He knew and pulled me in tighter. After what seemed an eternity but was probably no more than a few minutes, we pulled away, gathered his belongings and made the quick trip home.
Later that day, we attended Garren’s classroom Thanksgiving lunch. It was bittersweet because it was interrupted by calls from the mother of Shelby’s friend and calls to the investigative officer asking when Shelby would be home.
“Smith has to do an evaluation,” he said.
“OK, so when is that going to happen,” I asked.
“I don’t know, I sent the paperwork over yesterday,” he said.
This was on a Friday, one week before Thanksgiving and two days after Shelby had been removed from our home.
“So when is Shelby going to come home,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
More back and forth between Paul and me and the counselors consumed the remainder of the day.
The weekend passed and on Monday, Shelby returned home.
Three days later we had our first Thanksgiving together. It had become a “tradition” to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the galley while Paul was gone. First, I couldn’t bring myself to cook for three when I knew only two may eat and second, the food was great at the galley. Finally, I didn’t have to clean, the best reason of all.
But I did make a few side dishes and dessert for a dinner being hosted by another sailor for single sailors in Paul’s squadron, more of my peripheral interaction.
We actually had a good dinner. We sat together, eating ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and enjoying soft-serve ice-cream and other great desserts. We had walked there and when we left, our breath lingering in the air said winter had come to the Kanto Plain.
I was beginning to think the best course of action would be to return to Florida.
Protocol required the incident be investigated and that I be interviewed by an assigned investigator from Paul’s squadron as well as by Jones and Smith. Smith was assigned the lead investigator from his office.
I spoke to the young junior officer assigned the case, but I flatly refused to speak with Jones or Smith. At work, Paul came and persuaded me to at least go to their office. Walking down the stairs from the second floor where I worked to the first floor where the counselors’ offices were, I prayed I could remain composed, because I was done with the dung they were doling out.
Walking in the office, Smith, Jones, Paul and I sat in a room that was about six feet- by nine feet. A small TV in the corner was on but muted. Children books and magazines littered the other corner. Paul and I sat on one couch facing Smith and Jones on the other.
I don’t remember their opening remarks as I was trying with every fiber of my being to remain calm. I have no tolerance for people in positions of authority who abuse their power and worse yet, have no idea of how to do the job they were hired to do. In this case, provide effective counseling services to our family. It was not an easy feat for me and at some point, I’d heard enough.
Cutting off Jones who was spewing more of his stupidity, I said, “I will not speak to either one of you. We came here in July seeking help for our daughter who was raped. You (leveling my stare at Jones) had us watch “The Secret,” intimating that the rape was her fault for not putting enough good thoughts in the universe. You (making eye contact with Smith) told me you could teach me how to restrain Shelby in a way that would leave no marks. I called Glenn that night and explained to him what happened. I told him I didn’t know what to do, that she wasn’t making progress and I was at a loss. At no time did he imply I would be charged with child abuse. Yet here we sit. You both know I do not abuse my daughter or my son, yet here you two sit in judgment on a family you wouldn’t even know existed if I hadn’t reached out for help. Do what you want, but I will leave this country before I allow you to take away my child.”
I stood and left the room with their stunned silence following me.
About 30 minutes later Paul walked into the Navy College Learning Center office where I worked and asked that I speak with Smith.
After heavy persuasion on his part, I agreed.
“It’s part of the process,” he said.
“Yeah, a process that’s screwed up,” I muttered.
I met with Smith later that day after work and retold the events of that evening. He nodded, smiled that condescending smile that says, “Now, now, I know best,” and took notes. I left after vowing that Shelby would not return to him or Jones.
The only positive thing that came out of his smugness was the nugget that there was a child psychologist in Yokosuka.
“Hadn’t I asked if there was (a counselor) months ago?” I asked.
Another smile and nod – this is what passes for help I bitterly thought.
There was a time when I believed the words the Navy regurgitated like a fly regurgitates on a meal before eating it: honor, commitment, integrity. I believed the words because that’s what good sailors do – believe the myth created in order to feel as if what is being done is important, but in reality, the only commitment found is to oneself.
There are exceptions to be sure, and there is commitment amongst those who work together, but that commitment rarely extends to the top, nor does it extend to family members. Not that I could see at that moment.
I was tired. I was angry. I was exasperated with a system that seemed more inclined to judge than to help.
“You got what you deserved,” came the words from another time and place. 1988. I was stationed in Diego Garcia, my first duty station. My insecurities and being thousands of miles from anything remotely familiar on a speck of an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean led me to enter a relationship with a controlling man.
One night after he’d had a bit too much to drink, and one of the few nights I’d not, he became abusive. I ended up with a bruised face and a shattered sense of honor. The irony of it was he’d struck me in front of several of his shipmates, yet not one person tried to intervene. I ended up at the room of my Chief, because I knew of nowhere else to go; he took me to medical and helped me complete the paperwork.
I thought justice would prevail, but there I stood in my lieutenant’s office hearing the words, “You got what you deserved.”
It became quickly apparent to me she intended to not only ignore what happened, but decided it was my fault and that was the end of it.
Who knows, maybe it was. If I hadn’t been so insecure, I never would have dated such a person, but I surely hadn’t asked to get smacked about for the sheer fun of it. I quickly learned if I wanted to survive this game, I better learn the rules and rule number one was “You’re on your own.”
Twenty years later I realized very little had changed.
… I spoke with the FFSC guy (Mr. Smith) after our meeting on Tuesday and discussed exactly what will transpire at this board. It is not really a fact-finding type of event nor will a verdict of guilt or innocence be decided. He is the investigator in the whole thing and he said that he will be presenting everything to include the steps you have taken to help Shelby before and after the altercation. The way he describes it, the board will determine first, is this considered child abuse, second, is it safe for the child to remain in the home, third, suggestions for possible counseling or parental seminars for your family. There are two types of presentations when there is a FAP board. One involves mandating that the family take certain steps to help the problem and the possibility of the perpetrator’s name being put in a data base. The second is called FINS (Family in Need of Services), the abbreviation you and Master Chief already know. The second is what Mr. Smith is presenting the case as. The board does not mandate anything nor will your name appear in any database of any kind. They recommend ways to improve the family dynamic but nothing is required but comes highly recommended. Unfortunately, beyond what you, your husband and I have already discussed there is very little we can do in the way of any sort of defense. Mr. Smith knows about your continual effort to help Shelby, he knows that you understand the gravity of the situation and believes that nothing like this will ever happen again. He believes there is very little risk in Shelby remaining in the house as well.
Mrs. Harper, I know that what he told me sounds very accusatory and for that reason I asked him what defense do you have as a parent against a child working the system. Unfortunately, as I have said, there is little more that you can do. In my opinion I think your actions for your child will speak volumes…
So, there it was. The board would not determine guilt or innocence in the strictest definition of the terms, but my name could very well be placed in a database as an abuser. Barnhill’s assurances by Smith that I would not be labeled an abuser were of little comfort.
I was not permitted to be there. It would be a panel of individuals who did not know me but would pass judgment on me and my family. Passing judgment seemed to be the only thing these people were good at.
Upon reflection, it is important to note that although Shelby may have used the system to her benefit to get out of the house, it was more than just teenage rebellion. She was a child attempting to deal with a trauma that she was in no way prepared to handle.
She said later that she did not tell Smith I’d abused her, rather she told the events of the that evening, and he is the one who alleged the abuse and reported it as such.
Between the alleged abuse and the board’s decision, Paul and I contacted the Yokosuka Hospital and made an appointment with mental health for an evaluation and with Dr. Amerson, the child psychologist.
The Captain: we were greeted by an incredibly overweight, perspiring doctor who looked to be closing in on his sixth decade of life for her evaluation.
“I thought you couldn’t be fat in the Navy,” said Shelby upon first seeing him.
I admonished her but thought the same.
Although the office had windows, it was dark and smelled of stale body odor. His many “I love me” certificates and diplomas hung on the wall and his bookcases were lined with material on psychology, sociology, analyzing behavior and other long titles that lent the impression that he was well-read. I later learned he’d entered the Navy after an “established” medical practice as a civilian. He didn’t come up through the officer ranks, rather he was bestowed the title of Captain because of his medical degree.
“Why would he enter the Navy at such an age after having a career as a doctor in the civilian world,” I thought.
The three of us sat on a couch that looked as if it had seen some action in some fraternity house.
Supercilious and condescending is how he could be described. He was neither interested in hearing what Shelby had to say, nor was he interested in what Paul and I had to say. He formed a diagnosis within minutes of meeting us, without taking the time to listen.
His answer to Shelby’s plea to be able to sleep was answered with a heavy dose of drugs: Risperdal and Trazodone. His answer to Shelby’s behavior was that her and her daddy didn’t have a good relationship. It was his fault she was acting out. It was a superficial diagnosis from a man who had no idea how to deal with sexual trauma. Maybe he didn’t believe her; maybe in his world things like that didn’t happen; maybe he just didn’t care. He was collecting a paycheck and outcome was of no importance. As long as he showed up for work, he’d be paid. His pay was not dependent on his performance as it would be in the civilian market.
The drugs were prescribed to help Shelby sleep so that captain said. He cautioned that the medication could cause her to become emotional and tired, but it should help her sleep. I had never allowed any drugs to be given to our children of such magnitude, but at that point, I was willing to try anything that might help her.
But aside from quickly deciding she needed drugs, he just didn’t seem to want to deal with the root cause of her turmoil: the rape. He danced around it the way the Japanese dance around a conversation: Always going in circles without ever getting to the point.
“God, why will no one listen,” I thought.
We left his office not feeling any better and walked to the Dr. Amerson’s office.
“Here we go again,” I thought.
I was wrong. Walking into an office the natural light didn’t illuminate well, we were greeted by a tall man with gentle eyes, a genuine smile and a peaceful spirit. He invited us to sit. Paul sat in a chair while Shelby and I sat on a couch that was much cleaner than the last one we sat on. Whereas the Captain sat behind his desk, Dr. Amerson pulled his chair out from behind his desk and sat facing us, creating a circle. Where books with lofty titles lined the Captain’s office, Dr. Amerson’s office had pictures of his family, a lamp on the desk, a few books. Where the Captain’s office screamed, “I care not!”, Dr. Amerson’s office exuded warmth.
After asking what he could do to help, he listened while we told our story. He didn’t interrupt with questions, he just listened. It’s amazing how the simple act of listening can have such positive effects. Shelby seemed to like him; I thought that finally we found a person she could relate to and feel comfortable with.
“Finally, someone who listens and truly seems to care,” I thought with relief. Maybe we wouldn’t need to return to the states after all.
There was still the unpleasant matter of what would happen to the abuse allegations. On Dec. 17, 2008, the board met and determined that I indeed did not abuse my children and our home was safe. That was the last time we had anything to do with Smith, Jones or Steward.
I’d seen Steward outside my office one morning, shortly after the incident. He smiled as is to say something. I looked him, shook my head and simply said, “Don’t.” That was my last communication with him.
I’m loyal in my friendship until I am betrayed. Steward knew the circumstances of that night because I called him, yet he allowed the bogus charges to go forward and allowed our family to go through the rigmarole of an idiotic investigation knowing what would be the outcome. Some would argue he was merely doing his job, but when a person knows one thing to be true yet acts on a falsehood, that is betrayal, and I have no tolerance for such people.
Christmas was fast approaching. We were blessed to always have Paul home on Christmas. We decorated the tree as a family with Shelby and Garren helping hang the candy canes. Normally ornaments would be hung, but it was such a chore digging them out we opted for candy canes and tinsel.
We played Christmas music, laughed and then enjoyed the yearly watching of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Christmas Story.”
Although we’d seen it numerous times, the part of the young boy coming down the stairs in the pink bunny pajamas never fails to elicit a roaring laughter from each of us.
We enjoyed Shelby’s Christmas performance with the Zama High School choir. She loved singing but did it quietly thinking she was not very good.
Although the drugs were not helping Shelby sleep, her time with Dr. Amerson seemed to have a calming effect. She began slowly bringing her grades up and we entered 2009 optimistic that it would be a good year – one of healing.
Shelby turned 15 years old on January 7; we celebrated by getting a delicious Japanese strawberry cake. They were not the typical American strawberry shortcake – these were heavenly. The cake was light and the icing airy with ripe strawberries between the layers.
School resumed after the Christmas break and Shelby continued to see Dr. Amerson on a weekly basis. She also saw the Captain, but he was of no help. All he did was up the dosage of drugs that were apparently not helping her other than to cause emotional outbursts. Her nightmares continued as did the inability for her to sleep. However, her time with Dr. Amerson always seem to have a calming effect on her.
He listened to her, didn’t probe too much, he allowed her to speak of her dreams and encouraged those dreams. He took the time to speak with me without divulging their conversations. I liked this man and left each visit more optimistic about the future.
Shelby continued to improve her grades. She ran for the high school track and field team and sang in the choir. Another venture she thoroughly enjoyed was the ROTC team. The camaraderie, the field events, the drills, she immersed herself in each event and loved the challenges of it all.
As winter turned into spring and the Cherry Blossoms bloomed, filling the streets with pink and white petals, I thought we’d made a turn for the better. Then the hammer came down once again.
During a visit to Dr. Amerson’s office, we were greeted with the news that he would be deploying to Afghanistan within a few short weeks. Shelby was crushed, as was I. She’d only been seeing him a few short months, but she was making progress. In an instant, that progress did an abrupt U-turn and all the gains she’d made were lost.
I understood that he had no choice in the matter, but I was angry: Angry that we hadn’t been told of him earlier and angry that just as we were making progress the rug was pulled out from underneath us. If we had been told in July the previous year that Dr. Amerson was there, Shelby could’ve been seeing him all along instead of just the short time she had been. I was angry that although I specifically asked if there was a child psychologist, we were told there was not. I was angry at the Navy for transferring the one ray of hope we had, although on a logical level, I knew our struggles were of no consequence to the “mission.”
The yo-yo of trying to find help in a location that seemed ill-prepared to deal with the ramifications of rape led to my resolve to return to the states early.
Paul and I discussed this and although he did not want us on the other side of the world, away from him, he agreed.
He submitted the paperwork for an Early Return of Dependents and set in motion the gears that would have us leaving at the end of the school year.
Shelby did not take the news well. She didn’t want to leave her friends, but when we were called to the school because she’d been discovered cutting in the bathroom, I knew we had to leave. I didn’t want to find my daughter dead because she’d cut too deep and she needed consistent help, not the hit and miss we’d been experiencing.
With Paul being gone so often, I needed a support network for myself as well. Then there was Garren. We were blessed to have good teachers for him, but when he entered third grade, he was in a classroom with a teacher whose mentality was, “He’ll get it.”
She didn’t correct his work, and all the progress he’d made was being lost.
A bright child, Garren didn’t start speaking fully until he was almost four years old. I’d discussed his delayed speech with the (Navy) doctors and was told “Don’t worry, boys develop slower than girls,” and “He has a big sister doing all the talking for him.”
When he was three and still not talking other than a word here or there, I adamantly told the doctor something was not right.
We were in Tampa then and I wanted him to see a speech therapist but Tri-Care, the military insurance company, wouldn’t authorize it until he’d been evaluated. It took nine months before Hillsborough County could see him. By the time he was evaluated, and a plan developed, he was just shy of his fourth birthday.
He attended Pizzo Elementary School where the teachers worked with him, and the words slowly started coming. I was concerned that when we transferred to Japan, he wouldn’t be given the attention he needed, but to my surprise, his kindergarten through second grade teachers were outstanding. They had high standards for him, corrected his work and he thrived. All that came to a halt in the third grade, so returning early was as much for Shelby as it was for Garren.
As for me, I was scared. I didn’t know what would await us, but I knew that I would not have Paul there for support. Although he was gone often, at least I saw him a few months out of the year. I knew that once we left, I wouldn’t see him even that much. I also knew how hard change is for Shelby and I was worried that the move would do more harm than good. It’s a difficult spot to be in, trying to make the right decision with nothing really to gauge if the decision is right or wrong.
The months before we left were filled with paperwork, house hunting via the internet, deciding where to live, packing out, gathering records, work and all the other little details that go into a continental transfer.
Paul and I knew we would want to retire in the Pensacola area, but opted to look for a home in Santa Rosa County primarily because of the school system. We had a wonderful agent who looked at homes we spotted online. Initially we looked in the Pace area but eventually settled for Navarre because it was close to the beach. Now that we had the location, I contacted Nancy from the Gulf Coast Children’s Home to inform her we were returning and if Shelby could seek counseling there.
There was also the matter of finding a place to stay while we looked for a home. We were able to find a place on the beach that was within our price range for the month of June and July. Our car was stored in Alabama and my dad graciously agreed to drive it to Pensacola where he would leave it at Robin’s house so it would be there upon our return.
Everything was coming together and before we knew it, we were at the airport the week before Memorial Day weekend. I was filled with trepidation because I had no way of knowing if this was the right decision. Garren was excited about flying and seeing his family again. As we sat with Paul for a few minutes, I glanced at Shelby. I could see the uncertainty in her eyes although she put on a brave front. I knew the move would not be easy for her. I prayed God would see her through this and would give her peace.
It’s funny how time seems to drag by when you look forward to something, but when you want it to slow down, it moves as the speed of light. We waited until the last possible moment before saying our goodbyes. Paul couldn’t accompany us to the gate, so we said goodbyes at the security check point. We held hands as a family and prayed as we always did before departing each other’s company. Putting on a brave exterior, I told him everything would be fine.
“I love you Yvonne,” he said.
“I love you more,” I replied.
Shelby and Garren hugged their daddy tightly and with one last hug from me, we waved goodbye and became lost in the sea of travelers taking off their shoes, placing bags on the belt to scan the items, and waving one last goodbye from the other side.
“God, take care of my Paul,” I whispered as I turned for one last glimpse of him.
We made our way to the gate, boarded and prepared for take-off. Shelby and Garren were seated together in the window aisle, where I was seated in the outside aisle seat one row in front of them. I got them settled and buckled in myself.
As the plane rolled down the runway and lifted off into the air, I again prayed we would be okay.
We touched down at Pensacola Airport 24 hours later at around 8 p.m. As we debarked, we were all tired. Garren slept most of the way from Japan to Dallas but sprawled out on Shelby and she was gracious enough to allow him to use her for a pillow. In Dallas we went through customs and made our way to the terminal where we would begin our final leg of the journey. We had several hours so we ate at Ruby Tuesday’s in the airport. Shelby and I laughed as we ate because the portions were three times what we were accustomed to getting in Japan. Neither one of us could finish our meals.
We made our way to the boarding area. As I checked us in for the flight to Pensacola, I was told we were not booked on the flight.
Tired and in no mood to deal with ineptness on the part of the airline, I showed her our tickets and told the agent with as much politeness as I could muster that we were scheduled to be on the flight, we had tickets and we were boarding that plane.
Several taps of her keyboard later she said we were on the flight.
Sitting in the waiting area, I looked out onto the flight line with the afternoon sun glinting off the metal of the aircraft. How many flights had I taken, transporting me to journeys unknown? My mind drifting back to Duette, summer days working in the fields. Seeing planes with their trail behind them, I would think, “I don’t care where it’s going, I just want to be on it.” And so it was. I remembered when I enjoyed flying – the feeling of being thousands of feet in the air, a reprieve from life’s troubles for a few hours. Attendants were pleasant and passengers for the most part were friendly. Not so anymore.
Gone were the days family members could wave goodbye from the gate. Gone were the days when attendants smiled, and passengers had a general sense of neighborliness. Those days have been replaced by undressing at the security check points, no fluids, not even water bought at the airport, no smiles from workers, only the disgruntled berating if you dared disobey one of the many regulations put in place after 9-11. As was the case with Garren when we’d flown through Dallas one year earlier because he had a card in his pocket he didn’t put on the conveyor belt. A middle-aged security guard took to admonishing him for several minutes, telling him, an 8-year-old, that he had disobeyed the rules by not putting it on the belt. A Pokeman card was the cause of her harsh lecture. At any other location I would’ve dressed her down the way a Marine Sergeant dresses down a recruit, but I knew to do so would land me in some office charged with some bogus crime. So instead I ushered Garren through so we could catch our connecting flight. All this overkill in the name of security; never mind the myriad of civil rights these regulations violated – they were there to make us safe. Yet we were no safer than the day before 9-11. Instead, passengers walked around with a false sense of security, subjecting themselves to scrutiny at the leisure of whichever power-hungry security officer was on duty. The belief that somehow these security employees making slightly more than minimum wage with a high school education were our protector of the skies never ceased to amaze me. It reminded me of the false sense of security we’d just left: The false belief that because we were on a military installation in a country known for its safety, we were therefore safe from harm. It’s all a façade I thought with a heavy dose of cynicism.
When our flight was called, we boarded and settled in for the short jaunt to Pensacola.
Reaching our destination, we were thrilled to be done with our journey – or at least that portion of it because in reality we were embarking on another journey that would test my faith and strength in ways never experienced. There are times in life when everything you know is tested – the next year and half would be that test for me and my family.
Some people spend a small fortune to find out the future. As for me, I have concluded that the future is best left unknown and just experienced. If I knew what would happen, I don’t think I would have agreed to go through it, and that is no way to live.
I laugh when I think of my children and the future. If I knew I would naturally birth, with no epidural, an 11-pound, 4-ounce boy, I would have absolutely refused. But as it turned out, we got through it, both he and me.
Garren is quite proud of the fact he was so big and with each birth in the family thereafter, he anxiously awaits to hear how big the baby is and exclaims with delight, “Yes! I still hold the family record!”
I never planned to have children. I was one of those young women who planned to never marry and to never have children. Yet, here I am with two incredible blessings that have the whole of my heart. I never knew I could love so deeply, but my love for my children only rivals the love our Lord has toward us. From the moment I looked upon my Shelby on a Friday afternoon in Guam, I was immersed in a love that has no boundaries. That love was expanded when I held my Garren on a spring Thursday afternoon in Pensacola.
Her voice floats through the air and fills my ears with a sound fit for the angels. To think that voice was nearly silenced… the long and winding road…
Shelby’s first flashback occurred during the installation of the cable service to our newly purchased home. After two months of staying in a condo on the beach, we’d found a home to call our own and received two shipments of personal belongings. It seemed the transition was going smoothly. Shelby and I had started counseling at the Gulf Coast Children’s Home. We were both part of group counseling: she with peers who had suffered sexual abuse and I with family members of sexually abused children.
Neither Shelby nor I were too keen on group therapy, but I understood the logic behind the idea. It is often good for survivors to understand they are not alone, that this tragedy has befallen others as well. However, being reluctant to join groups and divulge personal information to strangers by nature, it was hard for me. Each meeting began with the words found in many group therapy sessions, “Hello, my name is… and my daughter was raped.” The first time I spoke those words, they became stuck in my throat the way an ill-chewed piece of meat does. It took several seconds of silence to still my nerves, stop the tears from streaming and to utter the words. It’s not that I was ashamed of the words; they were just hard to speak aloud because aloud they seemed to materialize into tangible objects. Knowing what happened and accepting what happened are two distinct entities and speaking the words made it real in a way not experienced before.
Oh, I had spoken the words before but not to a group of people I didn’t know. I didn’t particularly like sitting in that room full of other wounded souls. I didn’t know these people and while their pain was real, I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to know their pain because I was dealing with my own and I was in no shape to carry another’s burden. Not that the counselor expected that from any of us, but I felt drawn to these people and I wanted to help, but there I sat, just trying to remain composed. Falling apart in front of strangers was not something I was going to do. Shelby didn’t like it much either in her group and she voiced her opinion on the drive home after each session, but still we went.
During this time, we also learned through another doctor who would oversee her medicine that the drugs she’d been prescribed by the sweaty, obese indifferent Navy Captain in Japan should never have been prescribed for her. The side effects are worse than the supposed benefits. The new doctor ordered a regime of weaning her off the drugs because to abruptly stop, he said, would cause her to experience extreme mood swings and mental distress that could lead to thoughts or acts of suicide or violent behavior toward others.
It’s most distressing when one learns the trust placed in supposed experts was wrong. It’s even more distressing, maddening even, to know that there is no recourse for such reckless actions, that by virtue of him being a Navy doctor, we had no way of ensuring he didn’t do the same thing to others.
Shelby excitedly gets into her first car. The smile on her face is genuine, her excitement contagious. As she prepared to drive it off the lot, I sat in the passenger’s seat, took her small hand in mine and prayed. “Thank you Lord for this moment; you were there and you are here…”
“I wonder how it must have felt… when David stood to face Goliath on a hill. I imagine that he shook with all his might, until you took his hand and held on tight… cause you were there, you were there in the midst of dangerous snare. You were there, you were there always… You were there when the hardest fight seemed to out of reach… You were there, you were always there…” You were There, Avalon.
One day in late summer, the Direct TV man was hooking up the cable for our home. I had not chosen a cell phone carrier yet, so I was still using a prepaid phone. Unbeknownst to me Shelby had used the phone to call a friend. The phone rang and on the other end was Paul, but after saying hello the phone went dead. There were no minutes left on the phone. Hearing Paul’s voice was a rare occasion given his stints at sea; I was angry that the minutes I thought were there were gone and that I could not speak to Paul. I was short with Shelby and told her that because she had used the phone and not told me, I was unable to speak to Paul, and neither could she. She didn’t seem to care and brushed by me to leave the kitchen, hitting me with her shoulder as she did so. I turned and took her arm to stop her… she looked at me with something in her eyes I had not seen before. She let out a scream and went into another world.
The counselor told me she suffered from Post Traumatic Disorder, but she had never lapsed into an episode. The mind is a maze of memories, neurons and workings that only God knows of and in her mind, she was not standing in our kitchen in Florida, but was in another place.
She started flaying her arms to push me away, screaming “no!” I wrapped my arms around her and tried to soothe her, to no avail. Garren stood there not sure what to think, as the Direct TV installer went about his work.
I managed to get her in my bedroom, closed the door and sat us on the bed. I held her in my arms trying to talk her back, but nothing I said worked. Garren sat with me saying simply, “It’s okay Shelby.” After about 20 minutes, I told the man he had to leave. He replied he understood because his brother suffered from PTSD.
“You have to leave now,” I replied. “I need to take her to our counselor.”
As he left, we got Shelby in the car and proceeded to Pensacola. I was on the phone to Lauren, Robin’s daughter, requesting, begging really, that she meet me at the Gulf Coast Kids House to get Garren. I then called Robin who would later meet Lauren to take Garren. True to form, they agreed without hesitation.
As I drove, Shelby continued fighting only what she could see. I was driving as quickly as I could while holding Shelby with my right hand. My fear was that she would be able to unlock and open the door. Driving west on a busy Highway 98, across Pensacola Bay Bridge, down 17h Avenue, then to 12th Avenue we finally pulled into the parking lot. I can only imagine what other drivers thought of my driving. While I was safe, the urgency in which I drove was no doubt not lost on some drivers. Some probably caustically thought, “There goes another idiot.” Yet, they had no way of knowing that at that moment, I was simply a mother trying to find a way back for her daughter.
A wave of relief came over me as we safely pulled into the parking lot, but Shelby was still battling the demons of that night. Lauren was there and she promptly took Garren. I quickly explained to him that Lauren would take him to Robin’s, and I would come for him later. I hugged him and told him I loved him. He didn’t argue, he just went without question. He was 9 years old and was unable to comprehend what he was seeing but I think he knew something was wrong and he would be okay with Lauren and Robin.
Lauren had babysat Garren when he was a baby, and Robin was like a second mom. He’d always known them. I was so thankful for friends that didn’t ask questions, didn’t probe, just said “Yes, I’ll be there.”
With Garren gone, the counselors came out and tried to calm Shelby down in the car, to no avail. We eventually called the paramedics. Upon their arrival, only one woman was able to reach through the insidious memory that held Shelby captive: a woman with an Australian accent. I don’t know why, maybe the accent took Shelby back to our trip to Australia and the good memories of climbing the Sidney Bridge or playing on Manly Beach replaced the ones of the person who’d raped her. Whatever the reason, the paramedic was able to coax Shelby back from the abyss and get her into the ambulance where she was taken to the hospital.
I wearily climbed into the cab. I made small talk with the paramedic who drove but inside I was saying a simple yet earnest prayer. My feeble prayers weren’t elegant, just a simple plea, “Please Lord, be with my Shelby.” I think that’s when God hear us most. Not the bellicose prayers said by prideful men, but the small cries of breaking hearts. He understands those prayers because he’d heard his own son say similar prayers, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” For the Father to turn His back on His son must have ripped His heart asunder, but it was His love for mankind and Christ’s love for mankind, for me, for my Shelby that led Him to willingly give His life – to die a horrific death – to be the bridge that I could cross to reach the Father. “Lord, don’t let her go, just don’t let her go,” I silently pleaded.
At the hospital, tests were run as well as a CAT scan. A few weeks before during a youth trip to Birmingham, Shelby had fallen and hit her head hard and the doctors were concerned there was residual damage, but everything came back normal.
My life felt like two steps forward, five steps back. Just when I thought progress was being made, something happened that extinguished that progress. I was in a land I had no idea how to navigate through. Little did I know that this desert I was in would become all too familiar over the next year, and the only one who could guide us safely through was God.
“Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” Hebrews 11:1.
My faith would be tested but just as Noah had faith to heed God’s warning of something he had not seen, built the magnificent ark that would rival today’s carriers; as Abraham had the faith to obey God’s instructions to go into a land he had not seen; Esther’s faith to approach her husband to plead for her people; Stephens faith to die at the hands of many throwing stones rather than deny Christ; Paul’s faith to go into the unseen after his experience on the road to Damascus to tell others far and wide about Christ’s love and sacrifice on that rugged cross… my mother’s faith that through her prayers, her unseen daughter would return to God’s embrace; Jayne’s faith that through Christ’s power, an unseen cancer would be removed from her body; Robin’s faith that although unseen, she would indeed see her husband again.
My faith is small in comparison to those who have trod this earth before me, but their testament, their experiences, the greatness of God cannot be denied, and although my faith in His sovereignty would bend as the limbs of a tree bend during a hurricane, it would not break. God would make His presence known through the friends He would bring my way, the church family who would embrace us, His hand of protection that would surround my daughter and shield my young son who could not begin to fathom what was happening and His grace: His amazing grace that would be a balm to my spirit too many times to count.
But on that summer evening sitting in the hospital room, all I could do was pray and trust that we would get through this.
After the doctors cleared Shelby and she had come back from the edge, Robin met us with Garren. I noticed as we spoke that we were wearing a similar shirt in the same color. It’s funny how in the chaos of life, little details stand out. I hugged my friend and thanked her. It often seems that those two words just aren’t enough, but she knew.
We, mother, daughter and son, drove home in quietness. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words, and more often there are no words that can be said. We arrived home well after dark. We showered and prepared for bed. Garren climbed into my bed and Shelby hers. I thanked God for seeing us through another day, tucked Shelby into bed and then fell into a fitful sleep with Garren tucked into arm, with his head on my shoulder.
“Well here we go again, the devil’s at my door. Trying to get in, wanna steal my soul and all I know is something’s ‘bout to break…” Lyric from “Can’t Break Me” by Rhett Walker Band.
Summer began to fade and before I knew it, school was upon us. The beginning of a new school year always gives me pause and saddens me a bit. It’s not a new calendar year but rather the school year that marks growth for me: another year – an old behind, a new ahead. Shelby was entering the tenth grade and Garren the fourth grade. Shelby had made some friends at church and I thought that would make the transition into a new school easier, but that would be far from reality. High school is not easy and being new in a school is tough, especially for someone like Shelby who draws into herself in new surroundings. Unfortunately, that can be perceived as aloofness or arrogance and as such, she became a target for some girls who were probably going through their own emotional distress, and as such decided Shelby was a perfect target for their teenage angst. There were also the boys who no doubt thought she might be their latest conquest.
On the first day of school, after each had been safely delivered to school, I drove out to the beach. I parked, walked out to the shoreline, taking in the unending sea of blue, kicked off my flip flops and started walking. I walked for a long while, pausing to take in the sights of the sea turtles, or to talk to God, or just sit in the white sand in silence. I prayed that all would be well, but although I knew God heard my prayers, I also knew that just as steel is tested and strengthened by fire, so we too would be tested.
I had begun a Master’s program while still in Japan. That, coupled with the uncertainty of Shelby, I opted not to seek employment at that time. Instead, I volunteered in Garren’s class, helping the teacher with reading, chaperoning on field trips or whatever it was his teacher needed done on any given day. We biked to school given its proximity to our house and I often ate lunch with him at his request. At the start of the year, I wasn’t too worried about Garren, but I was for Shelby. I’d sent each of her teachers an email, explicitly telling them that if she was not in class, I was to be immediately notified. It didn’t take long.
The first couple of weeks seemed to go well. She took the bus to school and stayed after for Cross Country practice. She was, and still is, a natural runner. Her form and stride came with ease and when in Japan, she ran solid times on the Cross Country and the Track and Field teams. She enjoyed running and was good at it. I thought it would be a great fit for her, but true to form, she didn’t like the coach. He wasn’t bad, she’d just became attached to Coach Mollendick, her coach in Japan, and once Shelby formed an affinity for a certain coach or teacher, she measured each successor to the former. Still she ran though.
I began to think that maybe everything would be okay. However, a couple of weeks into the school year, Garren crawled into my bed and said he didn’t want to go back to school. Perplexed, I asked him why. He replied he didn’t know anyone and he wanted to be homeschooled. Garren had made friends over the summer so I was surprised that he would voice such a concern. He wasn’t one to talk much about his feelings, so I knew he was struggling with fitting in at his new school. We talked about it and I let him express with concerns and encouraged him that he would make new friends and he would be okay. He eventually did, and he really enjoyed his teacher, Mr. Shelton, the first male teacher he’d had. He also seemed to like that I was there at least once a week, helping.
However, Shelby was having a difficult time fitting in. She had gone from a high school with maybe 200 students to a school with more than 2,000 students. I could tell she felt overwhelmed and lost. Although, she was on the cross-country team, and had made a few friends she’d met at church over the summer, she didn’t know anyone. I emailed her teachers and told them I wanted to know if she missed class, for any reason. If she was not there, I needed to know. From September to December, I dealt with one fire after another. In the midst of it I would find myself fighting to save Shelby and to shield Garren from a storm that seemed to never end.
It didn’t take long for the email to come that stated Shelby was not in class. On one occasion, I received an email and I went to the school. Shelby was nowhere to be found. The assistant vice principal, Mr. Short looked everywhere and once it was determined she was not on campus, I began looking off campus. After about an hour, I went to another student’s house and asked him if he’d seen Shelby. I could tell by his response that he had, although he stated otherwise. With Mr. Short, I began looking through his house. There she was hiding in the closet. I collected her and took her home. That began a regular stint of me driving her to school and waiting in the parking lot to ensure she entered and stayed at school. It was a tiring routine.
Around October, Shelby started to feel ill. After taking her to the doctor, it was learned she had mono and it wiped her out for about a month. She was tired, didn’t eat well and couldn’t seem to muster the strength to get out of bed. She missed at least two weeks of school. Although she was still seeing her counselor, she didn’t seem to be making any progress and the darkness just consumed her. One day while working in the yard, it struck me. I was attempting to cut back some kudzu that was growing on the trees on our property line. The kudzu was snaking its way around the trees slowly sucking the life out of them. Kudzu is not native to America but when it was brought over from Japan it was thought to be a great ground cover. However, its insidious nature was such that it consumes every living plant in its path. It doesn’t take long for one kudzu plant to choke out the life of its host plant. I thought this must be what’s like for Shelby. No matter how much the vines were cut back, the darkness and hatred were consuming Shelby.
When she returned to school, I once again emailed her teachers and Mr. Short. “Let me know if she’s not there.”
It only took till early afternoon for the phone to ring. I answered and it was the school resource officer.
“I have Shelby and she’s not doing well,” he said.
I put Garren in the car and I made the drive to the school to find out what was wrong. When I arrived at the school, Shelby was with the resource officer and nurse. She was shaking and felt clammy. I thought it was a residual from the mono, so I took her home and put her in bed. However, she began vomiting and wouldn’t stop. I called her doctor who informed me she had Hepatitis B as a result of the mono but that shouldn’t cause vomiting. After a couple of hours of incessant vomiting, I helped her to the car and off we were again to the hospital. On the way to the Naval Hospital in Pensacola I called Robin and asked her if she could meet me there in order to take Garren. As always, the answer was an immediate yes. By the time we arrived at the hospital it was close to 5. I checked in Shelby and handed Garren off to Robin. I didn’t know how long it would be but it didn’t matter, I knew he would be safe with her.
Two hours and several vomiting bouts later, we still sat in the waiting room. At this point, I knew it was crucial to get her seen immediately because she was becoming severely dehydrated. I went to the desk and urgently requested that she be seen at once. In the assigned room, the nurses inserted an IV and pumped two bags of fluids into her system before she finally started to stabilize. After a series of urine and blood tests, the doctor couldn’t identify why she was so sick, but after being rehydrated and her vitals back to normal, she was released. By this time, it was close to 11. Robin lived about 20 minutes from the hospital. I went and quietly slipped in and retrieved a sleeping Garren. The hour drive home was a quiet one.
Much later I asked Robin how Garren did that night. “He just sat on the couch and watched the clock,” she said. “He would ask, ‘When is mommy coming?’” She explained that he just sat there which was not normal for the energetic Garren who would normally be up, down, in and out of the house, playing. I don’t know what he was thinking or how he processed the roller coaster that was our life, but he never questioned when he had to quickly go to Robin’s house or stay over at his friend’s house.
It became a regular occurrence for me to call Amy, Garren’s friend’s mom, or our Youth Pastor, urgently requesting if Garren could be picked up at school or from karate. One day, I had to get Shelby from school and once home, she had an enraged episode. She began throwing things in her room. She took pictures and other sentimentals, throwing them outside the door – glass shattering everywhere. The words that came out of her mouth were foul – I didn’t know this person – this was not my Shelby. It was if some entity had come over her and took control. After about five minutes of her throwing things out the door, I stopped her and when she turned on me, I wrapped my arms around her from behind and knelt until we were sitting on the floor. After what seemed an eternity, she finally came back and just started sobbing. I held her, gently rocking her, singing Amazing Grace, telling her I loved her, and it would be okay – but would it? Be okay? Finally, I gently placed her into bed. I went outside, and began picking up the shards of shattered glass, tears coming abated. Realizing the time, I knew Garren would be out of school soon; I didn’t want him coming home to the mess. I called Amy and asked if he could ride the bus home with Avery and that I would pick him up later. She immediately agreed. I then called the school to request they tell Garren to go home with Avery.
As Shelby lay in bed, I picked up each piece of glass, each picture frame, each item that had been broken. I cried as I did so. Our life felt like the shattered glass. Just as no amount of glue was going to put the pieces back together, I felt that way about our shattered existence. I hated the person who had done this to her and if I knew who that person was then, I would’ve tracked him down and killed him. How could another person be so evil… I knew to allow such hatred to exist within me was not a good thing, but there it was. I had learned to compartmentalize my life and as I picked up the shards of glass, I put the anger into a compartment of my mind so I would not be consumed by it.
It didn’t take much to set her off. One Sunday on the drive to church, Shelby and I got into an argument. I don’t remember what it was about now, but as hard as I tried to be understanding and patient, there were times I just couldn’t maintain, and that Sunday was one such day. Upon arriving at church, I walked her into her Sunday School room and asked the teacher to let her stay with her until I came back. I then went home with Garren. I just needed an hour to compose myself. On my way out the door to go back to church, the phone rang.
“Is this Yvonne Harper,” the male voice asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“I have your daughter and I’m at the church,” said the Ft. Walton Police Officer.
“I’m on my way to get her,” I said.
“No, she’s on her way to the hospital.”
“What are you talking about,” I asked. “I left her at the church for an hour. I’m on my way to get her.”
“She was picked up by a friend. She was walking on Highway 98. She’s cut herself. She’s being admitted to the hospital,” he explained.
Panic set in and I once again had to ask Amy if Garren could stay with her. She promptly came to get him as I drove to the hospital. On the way, Donna, another church friend called and said she would take me. I met her at our church, and she drove me to the hospital. Once there I was greeted by the deputy. The friend who had picked her up said he had been driving when he saw her on the side of the road, walking. Her arms had been cut; he’d called his mom and from there the deputy. Before I was able to see Shelby, I had to speak with the deputy. We sat outside on a bench and I told our story. Although he seemed to understand, he had already taken steps to Baker Act Shelby, which meant she was going to be involuntarily admitted to children’s psych ward in Pensacola.
“No, that’s not necessary,” I told him.
But it was too late. Once that ball is in motion, the only person who can change it is a resident doctor. Finally, I was able to see Shelby. I walked into the ER room and saw my Shelby lying in the bed with lines across her forearms. I sat down next to her and took her hand. She looked frail and scared. Oh how I wanted to take on the pain she felt, but no amount of willing that to be so would work. I felt like a spectator in the life of my child.
“I’m not losing you Shelby. I love you,” I told her through tears I couldn’t keep from falling.
Donna was still at the hospital and we were soon joined by Rickie, the Youth Pastor and Sarah who had brought food. We sat in the lobby, talked, and prayed. Rickie visited Shelby in the room. Hours went by and then it was time for Shelby to be transported to Pensacola. Donna drove me back to the church where I got the car. I then went home and packed a bag for Shelby. Garren would spend the night at Avery’s and take the bus to school the next morning.
The ambulance arrived at the center before I did and when I entered Shelby was distraught. I was greeted by a rude nurse who told me I could not enter.
“That is my daughter,” I curtly said, “And I’m not leaving.”
Another nurse came and told me I could stay with her. Shelby was scared and I knew this was not the place she needed to be. After speaking to the head nurse, I was allowed to stay the night with her. After showering, I put her into a small bed and then laid down on the single bed next to her. I didn’t sleep. I just laid there, checking on Shelby from time to time to make sure she was okay.
Night turned into morning. I called the high school and told them she would be absent. We then waited for the doctor, who happened to be the one monitoring her medicine, to make his decision. We spent about an hour with him and he then signed the paperwork allowing her to leave. By the time we got home, it was close to noon. I picked Garren up from school that afternoon and called to thank Amy for once again helping.
This was our life – a cycle of a couple of good days followed by an outburst. My resolve was wearing thin. During one such meltdown, Shelby left the house and started walking down the street. I waited about five minutes and then went after her in the car. I left Garren home because I didn’t think I’d be very long. I found her walking along the street in our subdivision. I came up beside her and told her to get in the car, but she flat out refused. I told her I would take her to a friend’s house to calm down, but she was not walking there. She kept walking and walking and getting closer to Highway 98. I told her if she didn’t get in the car, I was going to call the sheriff’s office to request a deputy’s help. Still she refused to get in the car. So, I placed the call. By this time, she was nearing the intersection of 98 and the main entrance into the subdivision. I drove across 98 and parked at the convenience store. I could see the deputy pull up on the north side of 98 and speak to Shelby, but she refused to stop. She entered 98 without looking. As she stepped into the south lane, a car drove past missing her by inches.
“Oh God, please,” I uttered.
On the other side of 98, the side I was on, the deputy caught up with her and put her on the ground because she would not listen to him. He handcuffed her and put her in the back of the other deputy’s car who had arrived a few minutes after the first one.
Shelby glared at me and spat out, “I hate you.”
The second deputy was a woman and she began to speak to Shelby. She finally took off the handcuffs and continued to speak with Shelby. I explained to the male deputy what was going on and that I just needed some help because while I was willing to take Shelby to her friend’s house, I was not going to let her walk there and she wouldn’t get in the car so I could take her.
After about an hour, Shelby had calmed down and agreed to let me take her to her friend’s. No report was filed and once again, I returned home albeit without Shelby. Garren was okay, but I didn’t like that he was alone for the time he was.
“Where’s Shelby?” he asked.
“She’s at a friend’s house,” I replied, trying to not show the exhaustion that was coming over me. I retrieved her later that evening.
And on the cycle went… counseling wasn’t helping, the medication wasn’t helping. It seemed with each passing day, the darkness enveloped her more and more. In a moment of clarity one night, while she was in another screaming fit, with the foulest things coming out of her move, I knew there was a battle being waged for her soul.
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. … And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” -1 Peter 5:8-10
One night after another exhausting day, when I thought I couldn’t go another minute, much less a say, I went into my closet, closed the door and dialed a number that would connect me to my friend. Jayne picked up on the third ring and while I intended to speak, nothing but a pitiful wail came out. Crumbled on the floor of my closet, I wept, connected by an invisible line to my friend. Without missing a beat, she began praying. When I couldn’t, she did, and she didn’t stop until the weeping ended and calm came over me. I was spent.
One night the home phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so I let the machine pick up the call.
“Hi, my name is… and I looked your number up in the phone book,” said the man. “I have a package with your name on it and with a pair of bronzed shoes. My number is…”
I listened to the message stunned.
Ten years earlier I had sent out Shelby’s first pair of baby shoes to be bronzed. The representative had written the wrong house number on the form and I never got the shoes. I walked the neighborhood asking each resident if a package with bronzed shoes had been received. About eight houses from the one we lived in a woman answered the door.
“Did you get a package from UPS with bronzed shoes?” I asked.
“No,” she replied.
I called the man back. Could it be that after all this time… I wondered.
“This is Yvonne, you just left me a message about a pair of shoes,” I said.
“Yes. My girlfriend has had this box for ten years. She took it with her to New Jersey and back to Florida. I read the name and looked up your name,” he explained.
“Where do you live? I will get them in the morning,” I said.
After all that time, her shoes would be returned to me. God’s timing is perfect. While I was distressed that I had lost her baby shoes, the pair she’d taken her first steps in, I had long ago accepted that they were gone. Yet here was God sending me a reminder of the Shelby that belonged to Him. It was if He was whispering, “See, I’m still here. She is mine and I will not let her go.”
I exclaimed to Shelby after the call that her shoes were found.
“What difference does it make,” she sarcastically asked.
I caught my breath at her reply, but I understood. She was hurt at the loss of the girl she once was, and the shoes were a reminder of innocence lost. What should have filled with her joy instead filled her with despair.
“God, I hate that man who stole from her!”
The next day I drove to the address given to me and was greeted by the woman who had answered the door ten year earlier and told me she had not received the package. I was taken back.
“Why didn’t you just give me the package,” I wanted to yell at her, but I knew there would be no point in that. I graciously listened as her boyfriend explained she had moved several times and had taken them with her. He discovered them and knew he had to try to find the owner. I thanked him.
As I left, I knew it was part of God’s timing. If he had found the shoes just a few months earlier, he wouldn’t have located me because I wouldn’t have been in Florida. And having the shoes returned at that moment meant more than if I had received them ten years earlier.
In the fall of 2009, after months of battling Shelby and one eruption after another, I knew what I had to do. Heartbroken, I reached out to the one person I knew would listen.
“Hi Dad, it’s me,” I feebly said.
“Hi hon. How are you doing,” came his gentle voice.
“Dad… I think I have to send Shelby to a residential treatment facility. It’s not working here and I’m not sleeping. She doesn’t stay at school. She cuts herself. I’m afraid. I’m afraid one day she’ll go too far.”
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” came his soft reply.
He knew. He knew how much I loved Shelby and how hard it was for me to admit I couldn’t do it – that I was failing at helping her. He knew how hard it was for me without Paul and how hard it was for Garren. The whole situation just reeked of helplessness and loss.
There I sat on my couch, researching residential treatment facilities. That evening, I talked to Shelby.
“Something’s got to give,” I told her. “We can’t live like this anymore. You’re not making progress. You’ve missed more days of school than you’ve attended. I think the best thing to do is to have you go to a residential treatment facility.”
“No! I’ll change,” she screamed.
I acquiesced but I knew inside it was just a matter of time. Not a week later, she lapsed into another meltdown. I was done.
“Pack your bag, I’m taking you to Pensacola now.” I told her.
“No. I won’t go.”
“You will go or I’ll call the sheriff’s office and have you arrested. I’m done. You can’t act this way and stay. You will go willingly or I’ll Baker Act you myself.”
So, in the car she went with her backpack. I checked her into the facility she’d been out just a month and half earlier. I explained to the check-in nurse what had happened. I tightly hugged her.
“I love you so much,” I told her.
She didn’t say anything but just stood there.
I left. In my car I put my hands on the steering wheel and just wept. “God, what is going on? Why? Why her? Please…”
She stayed for two days before being released. For about a week she seemed okay. Every now and then a smile would form. She smiled so seldom then that any smile was like balm on a wound for me. But as I knew inside, it was too good to last. When she came home with snake bites in her lips, that was it.
I contacted La Amistad and planned to visit the facility in November during a trip to Tampa for the Thanksgiving holiday. A residential youth facility specializing in helping children recover from alcohol/drug dependency and from sexual trauma, this place in Orlando was my last hope. During this time, I was in constant contact with Paul via email and the occasional phone call. He was set to come home for the Christmas holiday. I told Shelby if she controlled herself, she could stay until Christmas was over.
When we traveled south for Thanksgiving, we stopped by the facility. I spoke with the counselors and director. It seemed like a nice place and I thought that once there, she would get the help she needed. Shelby was angry and probably felt as if I was discarding her. She didn’t like the place and she let me know. It was a quiet ride from Orlando to Tampa.
Thanksgiving with my mom and sister was nice but the undercurrent of what was to come hung in the air – at least for me and Shelby.
Before we knew it, Paul was flying in. It was great to see him again. A few days later we trekked back to the airport to pick up his daughter, Sarah, from his first marriage. We hadn’t seen her in several years. After many hugs, we retrieved her luggage and drove home. The next 30 days went by too quickly. Christmas morning had Sarah, Shelby and Garren excitedly opening their gifts followed by Christmas dinner. Time sped by and we bid Sarah goodbye and prepared Shelby for La Amistad. While she had done well during the holidays, I knew it wouldn’t last. The first week of January, Paul, Shelby and I made the drive south. Garren, once again, stayed at Avery’s house.
Garren didn’t know what was going on and I tried to explain it to him in a way he would understand.
“Shelby’s heart is broken. She’s going to go to a place that will help her heart heal,” I told him.
The eight-hour drive to Orlando was filled with small talk. We arrived in the evening and checked into a hotel. My mom met us for dinner. We tried to be upbeat and put our best poker face on, but I think I failed. That evening I prayed with Shelby and held her as she slept.
The next morning, we arrived at the treatment center and went through the intake process. After a couple of hours, it was time to leave. I was so glad to have Paul there because I don’t think I could have left her there without him to steady me. I hugged her so tightly and told her I would see her in a couple of weeks. As we drove off my heart just broke into a million pieces. I tried to hold back the tears, but no amount of resolve could stop the flow of tears from streaming.
Months later, when visiting my sister, I overheard her and my mother speaking late at night. I had awakened to use the restroom when I heard my name. Accusations of abandoning my child, judgements of not leaving my child, that family sticks together pierced my heart. How could my sister and my mom say such things? I quietly slipped back into bed with their words cutting through me. Early the next morning, I packed up my children and left. It was almost a year before I could speak to either again. Years later, I told my mom how much her words had hurt; hurt more than having to leave my child because the decision was the hardest I’d ever made, and one not lightly made. We cried and prayed. She asked forgiveness which I freely gave.
“Did we just do the right thing?” I asked Paul. It was a rhetorical question because no amount of assurances would make me feel better – or him. He was set to return to Japan the next week. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him. For all his stoicism, he loves his family deeply and I know he felt an immense amount of guilt. Guilt for not being able to stop the rape; guilt for being gone and having to put the Navy first; guilt for having to return.
Nearly 30 years earlier, in 1987, while I was graduating high school, Paul was coming around a corner in Mexico with his first wife. They were returning to San Diego after a night south of the border. As they came around that corner late one night, he came upon several men holding down another man and a woman. Their intent was to rape her. He pulled his wife back and told her, “When we come around this corner, and I tell you to run, you run. Do you understand?”
He rounded the corner and ran toward the horrific scene unfolding and grabbed the man on top of the woman, picked her up and pushed her away. Next, he hit the man holding the woman’s boyfriend, grabbing him he told him to get his girlfriend and run. He next fought the men who had turned on him. He broke free and ran toward the border. To this day he doesn’t know where he got the strength, but he stopped a woman from being raped.
“Why was I there for her, a woman I didn’t know and would never see again, but I couldn’t be there for my own daughter,” he asked me. “Why? I am her dad. I am supposed to protect her.” I knew this weighed heavy on his mind… and still does, just as my own guilt for having missed what happened to Shelby the night she returned from that dance.
That’s the ugly truth about rape – it leaves no one untouched.
Driving back on I-10, I called the center to speak with Shelby. For the few minutes we could speak, she pleaded with me to come get her. How I wanted to – every fiber of my being wanted to turn around and go get her, but I had to tell her no; I would be down the next weekend to visit her. After our conversation ended, I slumped into the seat and just fell apart.
Shelby turned 16 a few days later. Her being so far away was not how we’d planned her 16th birthday. We spoke on the phone. Each conversation consisted of her asking to come home. How it broke my heart to have to tell her no. There I sat on my bed, with my head in my hands, crying. Would the tears ever end?
The phone rang.
“Hi Yvonne. I just wanted to call to see how you’re doing. I know its Shelby birthday. You okay?” came my sister’s voice.
“Oh Joy. Thank you for calling.”
Joy knew how hard the day would be and her simple call brought a small amount of comfort.
The next day, Garren and I made the trip to the airport to bid Paul goodbye. There was a whole lot of leaving going on and I was tired of saying “See you later.” I never said goodbye, rather, “See you later.” Garren and I drove home, without Paul, without Shelby.
“Mommy, when is Shelby coming home.”
I knew he missed her and while he didn’t know the reason, he knew his sister was hurting and all his tender heart wanted was for his sister to be okay.
“When she’s better,” I said as I took his small hand. “We need to keep praying.”
“When you’re lonely and it feels like the whole world is falling on you – You just reach out, you just cry out to Jesus – Cry to Jesus…” – Third Day, “Cry Out to Jesus.”
The next two months were a blur of miles, days into nights, phone calls and the ever-present questions, “When is Shelby coming home?” from Garren and “Can I come home?” from Shelby. Each night I would talk to her and every other weekend I drove the 680 miles to Orlando for a weekend and then the 680 miles back. Garren and I would stay at a hotel; each day there we would spend with Shelby. We ate out, went to the bookstore, tried to laugh, but always the question, “When can I come home?” My heart broke each time I had to leave. One would think the heart can only take so much, but the will to survive is greater than the desire to quit – at least when it comes to my children. The days crawled by and January turned into February. February gave way to blustery March, followed by the day that I could return home with Shelby.
It was the last week in March. I made arrangements for Garren to stay at a friend’s house. I awoke early and was on the road by 5 a.m. to make one last trip south. I arrived at the facility about noon. Shelby and I met with the counselor and then we collected her things and bid ado to the place. My heart felt as light as a feather as we left, this time with her seated next to me. By the time we arrived at Garren’s friend’s house to get him, it was about 9p.m. Shelby was in the truck and as Garren climbed in, he asked with such sweetness, “Shelby, is your heart better?”
We went home and for the first time since early January I was able to hug my daughter good night. “Oh God, is this the beginning of a new start?” I was so hopeful, and it seemed Shelby had turned a corner and was going to be okay.
We found a new counselor for her, Bet Ellis, whom Shelby immediately connected with. She went back to school for a couple of weeks and then she was out for Spring Break. She seemed lighter, but I was cautiously optimistic.
“I was sure by now, God, you would have reached down and wiped our tears away. Stepped in and saved the day. But once again, I say Amen and it’s still raining.” – Praise You in this Storm, Casting Crowns
Paul had been in Tennessee for a two-week assignment and he scheduled two weeks leave to come home. Again, it was good to have him home and his timing was impeccable.
One morning, Shelby said she didn’t want to go to school. When pressed, she said there were a couple of girls who had been harassing her online and it extended to the school. Paul and I made the decision to go to school with her to speak with the principal. As we walked into the school, Shelby went to her locker as Paul and I went to the office. About 15 minutes later two girls huffed into the office, one without shoes. I laughingly said, “Is this a no-shoe day?” The disheveled girl didn’t seem amused. Sitting there, we soon learned the girl (with no shoes) had bullied Shelby one time too many and as Shelby tried to walk away, the girl kept after her, so Shelby broke and a fit ensued until a teacher broke it up. So there the three of us sat in the assistant principal’s office awaiting a review of the video tape. After the school resource officer reviewed it, he and Mr. Short came into the office.
We explained why we were there and come to find out, the girl we’d come to speak with him about was the one that pushed Shelby too far that morning. The video showed the girl bullying Shelby and Shelby attempting to walk away. The resource officer said because she walked away and the girl followed and pushed Shelby, no charges would be filed, but both girls would be suspended for one week. I couldn’t muster even a half-hearted sense of anger toward Shelby because I understood that at some point, one must stand her ground. It seemed this girl thought Shelby wouldn’t respond, but on that day she was wrong. Home we went, with the week home uneventful.
However, it all went terribly wrong the day she was to return to school, one bright April morning.
When she awoke that morning, I knew within 30 minutes the day was not going to end well. “Something’s going to happen. I don’t know what, but it’s going to be a bad day,” I said to Paul. How bad I had no way of knowing, I just knew. I’d been there before. “God, we are going to need you this day.” I silently said.
Shelby was in a foul mood and I didn’t know why. She was short with her dad and he stood his ground. There we stood in her room, face-to-face. I saw the familiar anger fill her face and eyes and I knew… she turned towards the bookcase in her room and began to pull it toward me. I grabbed her in an embrace to stop her and she began to fight me. Paul then took a hold of her, wrestling her to the ground where he sat on top of her, holding her to keep her from hitting him.
“Call 911 now,” he cried.
“We can’t Paul,” I replied, stunned.
With a heavy heart I dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“We need help with our daughter,” I said. “She’s out of control and we need a third party to help us.”
As I was on the phone with the operator, I heard Paul scream, “Have them call for an ambulance.”
“I have to go now, but dispatch an ambulance now,” I said, not know the reason why.
I put the phone down and rushed into the bedroom. There lie Shelby on the floor with blood gushing from her face.
“What the hell happened?” I screamed as I grabbed the closest piece of clothing to apply pressure to her face.
Paul quickly explained that she had calmed down and as he was leaving the room, she’d grabbed a glass bottle and hit herself in the face.
“Oh God, please show up now.”
Shelby was screaming and there I was on top of my daughter who had blood streaming from her face. It was all so disconnected. I couldn’t believe what was happening; I had to stop the blood. A few minutes later I looked up and saw a deputy and the paramedics.
“Please help her.” I cried.
The paramedics took over, put her on the gurney, loaded her into the ambulance and transported her to the hospital. Paul and I spoke to the deputy, relaying what had happened. He told us to follow her to the hospital and there would be no report because it was self-inflicted. I looked on the floor – the blood stain.
“I have to clean this. I can’t let Garren see this. I have to clean this now.” I said.
However, no amount of cleaning was going to get it all out. After doing as much as I could, I stopped; Paul and I drove to the hospital. Upon arrival, we were greeted with an angry-looking doctor who refused to allow Paul to see Shelby. So back I went to see Shelby as Paul awaited a DCF investigator.
Walking into the ER room where Shelby rested on a bed, I was greeted with angry eyes that pierced my soul.
“I hate you,” she hissed.
Undaunted, I walked to her side and stroked the hair away from her face. When I looked at her, I didn’t see a teenager who hated me, although that was probably true at that moment, rather I saw the face of my daughter who had been so badly hurt and was so entangled in an insidious hate she couldn’t find her way out. I saw the infant Shelby who I held in a Navy hospital room in Guam; I saw an 18-month old being tossed in the air between her daddy and me in the clear waters of Guam; I heard her giggle that could lighten my spirit in an instant; I saw my battered child who for so long clung to this nightmare on her own. My heart broke as it had done many times before. I didn’t think it could break anymore, but it did.
“I love you,” I replied. “Oh dear Lord…” My prayers were growing feebler with each passing day. My faith was being tested and I feared at that moment it wouldn’t hold.
I so wanted to take her pain, to see her face light up with that beautiful smile, to hear her laughter again. I begged God to let me have her pain – to let me carry this burden – but that’s not how it works. As I was learning and am still learning, God gives each of us the strength to carry what comes our way and that through journeys such as the one my family was on, faith is strengthened.
“If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting: time after time.”
It was a surreal moment. I felt as if I was sleep walking through the moment, not knowing which way to turn or which door to enter. As if in a maze, each time I thought we’d come to the end, I’d discover that the way was blocked, and I’d have to find another route out of this labyrinth.
The doctors stitched the area between her eyes. I was so grateful her eyes had not been damaged. I left the room, glancing at my daughter who lie on the bed staring at the ceiling. I met Paul and the DCF Investigator in a private room. Once again, I told our story. How many times would I have to repeat the same words before progress would be made? The DCF Investigator was kind; she listened and informed us that although she would have to file a report, no charges would be filed. She informed Paul she would have to forward the report to his command per regulations, but it would be only for information purposes. After about an hour with us, she left and there we sat trying to decide the next step.
“She can’t come home,” I said.
For Paul, this was a bit much to take in – how he loved his daughter, and he too, would’ve taken this insidious darkness that engulfed Shelby. He must have felt like an observer to his own family’s crumbling. The Navy… always the Navy. It came first. At this moment, he was passing through and would be gone in a week, again.
Once again, I reached out to my friend, “Can she stay with you tonight? We need time to figure what we’re going to do.”
Without hesitation, “Yes.”
I went back to where Shelby lie on the bed in the ER room. Eyes still brimming with anger, sorrow, pain…
This is the evil that is sexual assault: rape. It leaves it its wake a destruction the likes of the 1923 Kanto Plain earthquake in Japan. On September 1, 1923 around noon, an earthquake struck the Kanto Plain Region. Within hours, the Yokohama/Tokyo area would be destroyed leaving about 120,000 residents dead. In quick succession: an earthquake flatten buildings; an avalanche removed from earth a small town and a commuter train filled with people; fires broke out, quickly consuming the wooden, densely packed structures; a typhoon in the region brought winds with no rains, stocking the fires; “Dragon Twisters,” one 600 feet high and 1000 feet wide killed 40,000 people within minutes, resulting in further destruction; after the natural collusion of events, people turned on each other with mobs killing Korean immigrants. This is the life of a sexual assault victim until healing takes place and the victim becomes a survivor. Unfortunately, and sadly, too many victims succumb to the aftermath, just as many Japanese succumbed to the aftermath of the earthquake.
Shelby did not want much to do with me at that moment, so after a hug, a kiss on her warm forehead, I left her side, going back to Paul. Although the DCF Investigator had cleared the way for Shelby’s release to us, I would have to tell her she could not come home.
After her discharge, we sat, mother and daughter, on the bench, outside the ER. Paul had returned home to get Garren from school. I quietly told her Ms. Robin was coming to pick her up. Immediately, Shelby’s demeanor shifted from hostility to warmth. Pleading to come home, I steadfastly refused. However, upon Paul’s return, he agreed to allowing her to come home. I acquiesced, but there was a feeling…
Pulling into our driveway, I couldn’t shake the feeling that all was not well. The four of us entered our home and forced normalcy kicked in. It was evening and darkness ascended the home. Shelby showered; there was blood in her hair. We discovered the doctors missed a small cut in the crown of her head. Paul took her back to the ER, although Shelby adamantly did not want to return. The feeling, ever present, would not go away.
It was late when they returned. I had put Garren to bed; he and I were going to Tallahassee in the morning for a school field trip. We were to be at the school early in the morning. Once Shelby and Paul were safely home, I thought I might be able to get some sleep. A few hours were all that I would be able to get, but lying down, exhausted, I thought a few hours were better than none. I fell asleep feeling thankful Shelby was home and okay, but still quite uneasy. I don’t recall how long it was before our dog’s barking and the house alarm awoken me.
Running into the living room, I saw Paul trying to enter Shelby’s room. She’d locked the door. By the time we entered and discovered the opened window, she was gone.
“Holding on to the words You’ve spoken; Through the fight and the flames I’m not alone; My hope in You is set in stone” Unbroken by Disciple
It never ceased to amaze how, in times of confusion and fear, the brain can switch off emotions and quickly think what needs to be done. My daughter was gone… I knew not where or how. The only thing I knew was I would find her.
The search began with our phones. I had received several calls that evening from a person unknown. I called the numbers back. One call sent us to a local fast-food restaurant where a young man sat. As soon as he saw us, he bolted. My attempts to follow him proved meaningless. We returned home and called the sheriff’s office. While waiting for the deputy to arrive, I called a second number. Another man answered.
“A young man came into Whataburger and asked to use my phone. I didn’t know him,” said the military member. I thanked him. The phone rang; the young man who had fled was on the other end. I explained the urgency of the situation and that to not help would prove disastrous for him. He explained that a young man he somewhat knew had come into town from Birmingham and wanted his help to get to Shelby. So, there it was, Shelby had managed to arrange for this individual to drive from Birmingham. When she left by her bedroom window, she had entered his car and off they sped to a city five hours north.
We later learned she had met this person at the beach during spring break.
We relayed all this to the deputy when he arrived. A “be on the lookout” (BOLO) was issued.
By this time, there was no use in attempting to sleep. In just a couple of hours I would be at Garren’s school, boarding a bus to Tallahassee. I had considered not going, but in an effort to have all appear normal for him, I accompanied him. In the faces of people I knew only casually, God showed up. On the bus was Katrina, a woman whose daughter was in Garren’s class. A woman of God, she and I spoke on the bus, and throughout the day. She never knew how her words calmed my soul. It’s not that she spoke any profound words of wisdom, nothing that would be written in stone, just written on my heart.
During the trip, I called AT&T to determine if the phone could be tracked: dead end. I called peers of Shelby: dead end. I prayed and prayed and prayed.
On the three-hour trip home, I looked at every car searching for the face of my beloved daughter. Paul was only home for a few more days… we had to find her.
That evening, I spent hours on the phone and the internet. I finally put a name to the individual who had spirited my daughter away. I spoke to his friends and then his grandparents. By now, Paul was traveling north. I called my niece who lived in Birmingham. She offered help in any form. I called by dad. He offered help in any form.
By the next morning, Paul and the grandfather were traveling the roads of Birmingham. In my conversations to this person’s friends and grandparents, I sternly and seriously told them they needed to relay the message that if this person did not have my daughter back by that afternoon, charges would be pressed. He had one opportunity at a “pardon.” He took it and brought Shelby to his grandparents’ home that late afternoon. To Paul’s credit, he didn’t take him out as I probably would have; he simply hugged his daughter and left. They spent the night at my niece’s house and Friday morning they began the journey home.
During this time, I resolved, again, that I would not lose my daughter. We stripped her room to the bare necessities, and I planned to withdraw her from high school. For all intents and purposes, she was failing her 10th grade year. The high school was a battleground in which she fought alone. Save for the assistant principal, Mr. Short, and her biology teacher, there was no one there who considered her worth their time. The resource officer had written her off as a trouble child, and the principal was indifferent. The fact that I would withdraw her elicited no “whys,” no “best of luck,” nothing but a quiet sigh of relief that they would no longer have to deal with this teenager who they discarded as not worth the time.
And so it was… Shelby withdrawn from school and Paul on a return flight to Japan.
Once again, for all the Navy had afforded us, there were times when my contempt for the Navy was unmistakable: this was one of those times.
“People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening…” Sound of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel
From: Murphy, Tonja CIV USN NAF
Sent: Monday, May 17, 2010 11:05 AM
To: Harper, Paul MCPO USN HS14
Hello, MCPO Harper –
The Navarre Child Protective Services Department contacted
Atsugi FAP regarding allegations of child abuse by you and your wife
toward your daughter, Shelby. Therefore we are tasked with opening a FAP
Our records indicate there was a previous Family In Need of
Services (FINS) case (November 2008) involving your wife punishing Shelby
with a belt. The FAP procedure is essentially the same as it was in the
November 2008 case i.e. FAP conducts assessment interviews and then the
case is presented to the local Case Review Committee (CRC) for a
determination and possible treatment recommendations.
I’d like to set up an interview with you and will request that
Whiting Field FAP conduct assessment interviews with your wife and
daughter. I also am required to contact your command. Is the CO still
Please give me a call at 264-4188 to discuss setting up an
Tonja Murphy, Ph.D.
Counseling, Advocacy and Prevention
Fleet and Family Support Center
NAF Atsugi, Japan
From: HARPER, PAUL AFCM (HS 14)
Sent: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 2:07 PM
To: Murphy, Tonja CIV USN NAF
Cc: Tompkins, Robert CMDCM (HS-14)
Subject: RE: FAP
I am currently deployed and unable to schedule an interview.
What do these allegations state? You didn’t put anything about it in
P. Harper AFCM
From: Murphy, Tonja S. CIV (NAF)
Sent: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 2:49 PM
To: HARPER, PAUL AFCM (HS 14)
Subject: RE: FAP
Hi MCPO Harper,
As I said, Navarre Child Protective Services Department opened a
case in regard to an alleged incident on 13 April 2010. The CPS
procedure is that they must report it to the service member’s local FAP
office. FAP must then contact you and your command.
Per policy, I may not detail the specific allegations but must
request an interview with you so that I can obtain information i.e., if
there was any type of incident and, if so, your perspective on what
occurred. The information from the interview will be incorporated into
the overall FAP assessment, which FAP is required to do whenever an
allegation of abuse has been made. Of course, if you do not want to
provide any information or give an interview you do not have to do so.
I understand you are deployed and cannot come into our office.
If you can call me, I will explain the procedures in more detail. I can
also FAX or mail information and FAP forms if you provide your FAX and
mail contact information.
Tonja Murphy, Ph.D.
Counseling, Advocacy and Prevention
Fleet and Family Support Center
NAF Atsugi, Japan
From: HARPER, PAUL AFCM (HS 14)
Sent: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 1:10 PM
To: Murphy, Tonja CIV USN NAF
Cc: Tompkins, Robert CMDCM (HS-14); HESSER, RAY CDR (HS 14 CO);
Subject: RE: FAP
I spoke with my Skipper regarding this issue and I have decided
to decline an interview with you or anyone from FAP. The case you are
referring to was investigated by the proper authorities, in Santa Rosa
County, who determined there were no indications of abuse and the wounds
Presently, if you have any questions, you may refer them to
Heather Wood in Santa Rosa County. To my understanding, you have
already corresponded with her on several occasions to which she informed
you that the case had been investigated, deemed unfounded and closed.
Thank you for your time.
P. Harper AFCM
From: Yvonne Harper [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Thursday, May 20, 2010 12:10 PM
To: Paul.Harper@cvw5.navy.mil; Murphy, Tonja CIV USN NAF
Cc: Robert.Tompkins; Ray.Hesser;
Subject: RE: FAP
Dear Ms. Murphy,
I spoke with Ms. Wood on the morning of May 18 and she stated the case
was closed. She also stated that she is required to inform your office
but that she did not refer the case to your office for action because no
As was clearly outlined in her report, Mr. Harper did not abuse his
daughter, nor did he hit her; her wounds were clearly self-inflicted –
as was stated in the report.
Additionally, the Santa Rosa County deputies were called by me to
respond to our daughter’s behavior; they were on the scene when she was
transported to the ER and no charges were filed because no abuse
Given that there is no active case and all the appropriate authorities
in Santa Rosa County have closed the case, I fail to see the authority
you have to investigate an action that 1) did not occur and 2) did not (allegedly)
occur on NAF Atsugi. Furthermore, the reference to the unsubstantiated
and closed incident from the fall of 2008 is unprofessional and appears
to prejudice the reason for any case being open by your office regarding
the entirely unrelated incident of this past April. Nevertheless, you
seem intent on investigating a matter that has no merit and has been
decisively closed by Heather Wood of DCF, and a matter that warranted no
charges by the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office.
With all due respect, you are investigating a situation that you have no
knowledge of other than the report that was sent to you by Ms. Wood.
The history of our daughter’s behavior is beyond your scope of
knowledge; you have no knowledge of this family dynamics and what this
family has been through and without such knowledge your investigation
will simply be a waste of time and resources as it will bear no fruit of
abuse. Finally, our family matter is ours and will not be discussed
with you or anyone else from your office.
Yvonne C. Harper
“The Lord who created you says… I have called you by name; you are
mine.” – Isaiah 43:1
Hello Mrs. Harper,
Thank you for providing information about the alleged incident.
To clarify for you the reason for FAP involvement: Apparently Navarre
Child Protective Service department policy directed Ms. Woods to notify
FAP. The report of the incident was then routed to the service member’s
local FAP office, in this situation the Atsugi FAP.
Whenever any FAP office has a report of an allegation of possible child
abuse there is a set of procedures that must be followed.
1. FAP opens a case. 2. FAP contacts service member’s command. 3. FAP
contacts the service member to request an assessment interview. 4. FAP
also must request an interview with the family member spouse and the
children in the family, including the alleged victim. Of course, both
the service member and the family member spouse can decline to be
interviewed and can decline to have minor children interviewed. 5. FAP
gathers all available information about the alleged incident and
presents the information to the case review committee (CRC). 6. Based on
specific guidelines, the CRC makes a determination that the information
appears to either substantiate or unsubstantiate the allegation of
abuse. 7. If the case is unsubstantiated it is closed at that time. If
it is substantiated, the CRC then makes treatment recommendations and
the case remains open either until treatment is completed or the CRC
believes treatment recommendations will not be met. In the first
situation the case is closed as “resolved” and in the second it is
closed as “unresolved.”
Initial contact by telephone, followed by in-person contact, is much
preferred so that questions can be answered and clarifications can be
made on the spot. However, with your husband being unavailable by phone,
email was the best method available. Reference was made to the previous
case to help your husband recall the FAP procedures that were explained
in detail to him in November 2008 and also to recall that this is the
second time an allegation of abuse has been made. Therefore in the FAP
process it is considered a “subsequent allegation”. If you follow the
email thread you will see that the initial email referencing the
previous FAP case was made to your husband and no one else was copied.
You and your husband will receive written notices of the CRC date once
it has been scheduled. You may change your mind at any time and request
to participate in a FAP assessment interview so that the CRC may be more
fully informed about the alleged incident. For an in-person FAP
interview, you may contact Whiting Field FAP. Also, you may provide a
written statement to the CRC.
Please contact me at any time for further information or if you have
Tonja Murphy, Ph.D.
Counseling, Advocacy and Prevention
Fleet and Family Support Center
NAF Atsugi, Japan
From: Ray Hesser
Subject: CRC outcome
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, pharperhd
Date: Thursday, June 10, 2010, 7:05 AM
I went to the FAP case review today. It lasted about 5 minutes, half of that was me explaining about how they were wrong about your family from the beginning. Based on the information you and Master Chief had already provided, the committee concluded (unanimously) the allegation to be “UNSUBSTANTIATED, DID NOT OCCUR”. Once they had the law enforcement reports they admitted they would have never opened the case in the first place if they had known the whole story.
My prayers continue to be with you, Master Chief, Shelby and Garin (Garren). I know this administrative B.S. was no help, and you are focused on what is necessary to heal as a family. I hope you are enjoying your trip in San Antonio, the river walk is a fun place to stroll around and Master Chief said you had a lot of activities and visits planned. Have a safe trip!
There it was: The U.S. Navy via the Family Advocacy Program had twisted an informational report to be more than it was with the intent of labeling Paul and our family, and with the intent to punish. Loathe, contempt, distrust: words that could not come close to what I was feeling toward Ms. Murphy and her gaggle of “do-gooders.” We were fortunate in ways other service members were not: Paul had a commanding officer who supported his Master Chief and family; Paul and I would not be bullied; I knew the system and the law. How many were there that did not though? How many families were labeled “abuser” and not provided the resources they desperately needed? How many sexual assault victims dealt with counselors whose motto was “Put good thoughts in the Universe and good things will happen”? How many were prescribed anti-psychotic drugs because that was easier than helping the family and survivor heal? I’d would like to report that in the years since 2010, things have changed: they have not.
In May, I packed up the truck and took Shelby and Garren on a road trip to Texas. Two weeks away from life, if you will. San Antonio, Boerne, Austin, caverns, waterparks, antique stores, the Riverwalk, musicals, Blue Bell Ice Cream, good food… it was a reprieve we needed.
When we returned, Shelby began her home-school studies. If she wanted to finish in 2012, she would need to get three years’ worth of work completed in two years. It seemed a daunting task, but I was not intimidated, and I told Shelby she could get it done. She went to work.
She also got a job at a restaurant in Gulf Breeze. It meant driving her to and from work, but it also gave her an opportunity to save money. Later that fall, she secured a job at Whataburger, a fast food restaurant much closer to home.
She had always loved singing. When she was in elementary school, she had written in a book that she wanted to be a singer someday. To help her achieve the goal, she began singing lessons with the music director at our church.
She maintained counseling with Bet. It was in the safety of her office, we would learn her rape was by more than one man. The full magnitude hit us like a tsunami. With Bet’s help, Shelby was taking one small step at a time; she was no longer taking any medication. Things seemed to be looking up. A sense of normality returned. Summer had come to Florida. We went to the beach. We played games. We watched movies together. Slowly, Shelby seemed to be making progress. I can’t say why, as I don’t know what exactly it was that shifted. Maybe it was withdrawing her from school and having her close to home. Maybe it was the new counselor. Maybe it was she was tired of the chaos. I can’t be certain, but I know that slowly, ever so slowly, a tepid calm was present.
“I will lead you beside still waters…” Psalm 23. God was bringing us to a place of quiet. The only person missing was her dad.
“Hi Girlfriend! I love you Yvonne. I am really looking forward to coming home! Loving you,
Paul” July 30, 2010.
When Paul returned to Japan, and after the FAP “intervention,” his commanding officer asked him if he wanted to return home early. He said yes without hesitation. I did not tell Shelby or Garren. I created a story that we were going to pick up Robin’s niece from the airport because Robin was working. With the house clean and my heart in my stomach, we went to the airport. Given security, we could no longer go to the gate, so we waited in the common area. Shelby and Garren weren’t paying much attention. I was the first to see Paul walking toward us. My heart swelled with love for this man. Garren saw him first and ran to his daddy. Shelby saw him but waited. With trepidation she looked at me and simply asked, “Is he home for good this time?” “Yes, honey, he’s home.” With those words she bolted toward her daddy the way a horse bolts out of the gate at the sound of the starting gun. Paul scooped her up. As usual, I hung back, taking in the moment when Shelby and Garren were reunited with their dad. Approaching me, I hugged him tight. It’s a moment one can never understand unless experienced firsthand. All the years of saying “hello” “goodbye” were over. We were a whole family. There would be no more long absences. No more communicating through email with the sporadic phone call.
The following weeks went well, with the us adjusting to Paul’s presence. For so long I had carried the family alone that it took me a while to adjust to the “we” instead of the “I.” The biggest change was in Shelby. The presence of her dad had a calming effect on her.
As the summer days rolled by, Paul and I decided to put in a pool. The children were happy about the prospect of swimming at any time at home. The pool was completed by the end of September. In Florida, summer lasts well into October. On a sunny warm day, we were swimming. Paul and I got out of the water, sitting on the pool’s edge. Shelby and Garren were playing in the water. Sister and brother, giggling, splashing, in the moment.
As I sat looking at my children with the late afternoon sun shining, I teared up. For the first time in years, there was a lightness in Shelby. Hearing her laughter fill the air, genuine laughter, as she played with Garren was a blessing like no other.
“I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but at this moment, all is good,” I said to Paul. And indeed, at that moment all was good.
Completed in 2017. Shelby asked me to write “our story” in May 2013. The story is not over… rather it has just begun but that is for another day, and when ready, will be published.