Rape in the fire service: A story revisited

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

This post originally appeared in this space on April 28, 2014. I went  back and read it again—and decided to repost it today—because it appears that not much has changed about sexual harassment, sexual assaults, and yes, rapes of women firefighters by their “brothers” in the fire service.

So, with that said, here’s “Maggie’s Story”, once again.

Recently, I was perusing my Facebook news feed when I came upon a posting from Maggie (I’ve changed her name to protect her anonymity as her case is still in litigation). While not very specific in nature, I got the sense that Maggie’s post had something to do with sexual harassment on the job as a firefighter as Maggie is a firefighter.

See Related: Being a Firefighter Shouldn’t Mean Getting Raped

So, I sent a follow-up message to her via a Facebook Message and this is what I learned:

Maggie: Are you familiar with my situation?

Me: I only commented on what you posted last night. I do not know anything else, and that was enough to know that something is not right.

Maggie: I can share it with you. Just keep it btwn us. And the girls…[on her social media network]

Here is Maggie’s story:

Let’s rewind my life all the way back to when I was a kid. Sometime around 11 or 12 I remember really observing my parents drinking problem. I remember how alcohol affected them which left me very isolated.

At 15 I began acting out and by 16 I was wrapped up in a very bad crowd. After I was raped at 16 I started shutting down. I never told anyone but a few friends and my boyfriend a few years later. I struggled in college and failed several classes which made me decide to try the Navy.

Two weeks later I found out I was pregnant with my beautiful daughter. Instead of going through with my enlistment, we married and both got good jobs to live the American dream and do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. I still had all the pain built inside and buried it to love my daughter.

After entering the fire service in 2001, I found my heart torn between motherhood and firefighting. I literally loved them both that much equally. After almost 6 years in the department I had been divorced and remarried.

I started going to Al-Anon and truly understood how damaged I was and how much power God had given me to grow from it. I learned to forgive my parents and sought help with a sponsor for more individualized care. (My entire family, except for my sister and I, fell victim to alcoholism). I was doing so well in my life at this time. I was much closer to God than I had ever been.

Then things began to change at work. I received a letter of transfer as well as a handful of others. When I transferred to the new shift, I was stationed with my Lieutenant from my old shift (We were both transferred to the same shift from the old shift).

Things started getting weird at work and I was harassed each shift. I was eventually raped on the job.

In the beginning the frequencies of sexual assault went from over the cloths to him trapping me and putting his hands down my pants. I rationalized the situation by thinking if I could make him believe in God or if I could act like it was a relationship it wouldn’t be rape or sexual assault. I now see this for what it really was, Rape Trauma Syndrome.

Note:  If the rape crisis is not solved, major disorganization may ensue. The rape victim may have general feelings of helplessness, be in a state of confusion, and have the inability to think clearly about how to check reality. (Family Crisis Centers. Sexual Assault. On-Line. http://www.familycrisiscenters.org/site/rape_syndrome.html)

The fire service is just like the military, in that women and men are constantly in close quarters, not only reporting to their supervisor, but having to interact with them in front of other firefighters. I told a handful of people desperate for an answer of what to do. I was never rescued, and no one stood up for me by telling the police or my husband.

So, I kept the secret and because of that was held as his slave for months. I cried a lot, but I never lost my faith in God. I knew God was there and was holding my hand. I knew God would bring this to light, but he would do it gently. I decided to tell my husband about everything.

I filed a police report with him [my husband] supporting me and staying by my side. I was interrogated by the state Bureau of Investigation and eventually complained to the DA [District Attorney] because I deserved a fair investigation.

The city [I worked for] has made no attempts to contact me. They [the city] have cut my email off and will not pay my tuition reimbursement as they promised. I am getting paid. It is like I have been placed on the Isle of Malta with Peter.

Through all of this I met the most amazing woman ever. Her name is Amelia Hope [Name changed to protect her anonymity]. Through conversation and our friendship she taught me not to give up and that I will fight fire again one day.

I started college and thus far I have an A and a B for my course work.

I decided to start a social media page for girls that would allow us to speak candidly and free about our situations. I still do not know what will happen with my situation, but I cannot dwell on it everyday. The locality where I had served had nearly killed me.

I chose to be silent to keep the peace. I chose to go with the flow so that I wouldn’t be “that girl.” The lessons I have learned have left me scarred [just as much] as if I was injured in the line of duty.

Through endurance I was able to overcome and still keep up my duties at work like nothing was happening. Through integrity I was able to tell my husband and accept responsibility for the longevity of my situation. There is NOTHING I can’t handle. I will be a Fire Chief one day.

Needless to say, I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

Maggie’s story is both tragic and inspiring. I asked her if she would share it via this blog Dignity in the workplace 1and she graciously and bravely accepted my offer. I think her story is the kind of story that helps shine the light of day on this dark side of the fire service.

But beyond that, Maggie’s courage and perseverance in the face of huge struggles can serve an inspiration to other women in the fire service who have, or are experiencing the same harassment and crimes because of their gender.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things about sexual assault and rape, not just in the fire service, but in our society as a whole:

  • Sexual assault and rape are criminal behavior.
  • Sexual assault and rape are not about sex–these acts are “tools” that the perpetrator uses to control or dominate or intimidate their victim.
  • The victim of a sexual assault or rape is no more “responsible” for their assault or rape than you or I would be if another driver runs a red light and “t-bones” our car.

See Related: Types of Sexual Violence (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network)

Sexual assaults and rape being perpetrated on our sister firefighters by their colleagues–and in many cases their leaders–isn’t a women’s issue that they can solve.  It’s a failure of fire department leadership and that means it’s up to the men who occupy the majority of leadership positions in the fire service to eradicate this blight from our profession.

Who’s with me on this?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.