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.
California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who sponsored the bill, told TheDC that it would take “the reporting, oversight, investigation, and victim care of sexual assaults out of the hands of the normal chain of command,” and put the jurisdiction “in the hands of an autonomous office comprised of civilian and military experts.”
New York Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko is a co-sponsor of the measure. He told TheDC about a recent meeting he held with more than a dozen advocates for female veterans.
“What I heard was distressing and emotional,” Tonko said. “Too many cases of assault and abuse go unreported, and those that are reported often receive an inadequate response. That kind of treatment is unacceptable in or out of the military, but it’s particularly troubling when we recognize that these are individuals who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way to protect their fellow Americans.”
But for now, the military is confronting sexual assault in uniform on its own, and leaving veterans like Bushnell to struggle with their transitions home.
“I’m hoping I can get well enough to go back to school, or work,” she said. “My school-age sons live in Texas, and I miss them dearly. I’m hoping we can be reunited soon.”
Speier, meanwhile, insisted that “the public needs to become aware of this epidemic and pressure Congress and the Department of Defense to do what is right.”
“I won’t stop fighting until we fix this problem,” she vowed.
Editor’s note: The Long Road Home Project will gladly accept your donation to support this project.