In 2006, Air Force Staff Sgt. Colleen Bushnell retired with a medical disability after injuries brought on post-traumatic stress disorder. Away from the service and separated from her decorated, nine-year military career, Bushnell’s life spiraled out of control. She had alcohol-fueled thoughts of suicide. She lost custody of her children. She became homeless.
That was then.
Today Bushnell has emerged as an advocate for war heroes returning home. She knows that each of them travels a long road, and it doesn’t have to be a lonesome journey.
Bushnell’s two service-related injuries were not line-of-duty bullet wounds. They weren’t even inflicted by the enemy.
It was her superior officers at Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio, who hurt her. One raped Bushnell in 2004. Another, a female officer, sexually assaulted her the following year. Lackland is the same base where 31 female recruits have accused a dozen military trainers of sexual misconduct. Six instructors have already been charged with offenses that could bring as many as 45 years in military prisons.
After her retirement Bushnell was ill-equipped to deal with the psychological impact of her abuse. She struggled to get back on track until she learned that she wasn’t the only victim.
“The biggest difference between where I was just after separating from service in 2006, and where I am today, is knowledge,” she told The Daily Caller. “I found out last fall that there were legions of survivors online, collaborating, sharing stories and experiences.”
“I felt I had been found.”
Bushnell has developed a healing regimen for her PTSD, involving outdoor physical challenges. This therapeutic approach led her to Casey Miller, who founded the Long Road Home Project.
That organization helps returning veterans heal war wounds through the power of long-distance cycling. He and five other participants, all veterans, will begin a cross-country ride on July 14 that will cover 4,200 miles over 90 days. They will start in the state of Washington and finish in Washington, D.C., visiting 11 military bases along the way.
Miller said his organization is helping “men, women, hand cyclists, a member of the gay and lesbian community … a survivor of military sexual trauma, an officer and front-line combatants.” They range in age from 27 to 63.
Bushnell is among them.
“A long distance ride seemed like something I could work toward accomplishing,” Bushnell explained. “And the concept of sharing my story to help others was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I want to inspire hope for fellow veterans and their families who are struggling.”
Bushnell will also ride in memory of U.S. Army Private First Class LaVena Johnson, whose 2005 death at the age of 19 was ruled a suicide. An autopsy, however, along with reports from private investigators hired by her family, suggested that Johnson suffered physical injuries consistent with a sexual assault.
“I read her story last year,” Bushnell said, “and she has never left me. Where I go, she goes.”
The coming cycling marathon is not the only thing on her veteran’s agenda.
Bushnell has shared her story with the Coalition for Women Veterans in New York state. She has collaborated with politicians in upstate New York to shed light on military sexual assaults. She is a board member of Protect Our Defenders, an organization that advocates for military victims of sexual assault.
She also advocates for the proposed Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act. That legislation would create an oversight board to track — and combat — sexual assaults among military members and at U.S. service academies.
According to one Department of Defense survey, only 13.5 percent of military men and women say they reported a sexual assault that they were aware of. That translates to an estimated 19,000 such incidents in the military during 2010 alone.