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Veteran Seaman Gunderson: Fighting back against the Navy’s retaliation from recruiter abuse and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

Courage to Resist is seeking to raise $3000 for legal fees to assist Annette “Lavender” Gunderson with a discharge upgrade from the BCNR (Board of Corrections of Naval Records) as well as in providing counsel as she tells her story to Congress and the media.

We see the headlines far too often:

Recruiter abuse is real and it is widespread. It often goes unreported, but when it is reported, the end result is often a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator and little reflection by the system on why recruiter abuse continues to keep happening over and over again. And of course, the victims are forgotten and ignored.

This dynamic may be about to change, as we have the chance to stand with a veteran who is fighting back.

Annette Gunderson has already told her story in compelling detail in an article published by NNOMY. Here is a summary of her story:

Annette was a 17-year-old who dreamed of being in the Navy. Unfortunately, her recruiter violated his leadership position and committed statutory rape. He continued to abuse and manipulate her, even attempting to blackmail her into silence, so this brave recruit reported the crimes, and did so as an “unrestricted reporter,” meaning that the allegation was known by her future command when she shipped out to boot camp.

Unfortunately due to her having made an unrestricted report of sexual assault by her recruiter, she was targeted for abusive treatment by her command and she eventually reached a mental breaking point. She was then forcibly hospitalized and mistreated in that medical facility. Despite what she was going through, she was able to successfully testify against her old recruiter (ensuring his eventual guilty plea and conviction), but was also coerced into accepting a lesser discharge from the Navy, which meant that she had no access to counseling, legal or any other kind of transitional support when she returned back to civilian life. She has since worked hard to heal herself, but she has had to fight her debilitating disability largely on her own.

Due to the circumstances of her case (as the only known survivor of recruiter abuse, who made an unrestricted report of the abuse prior to shipping out to boot camp), Annette Gunderson has a unique opportunity to fight back and to ensure that what happened to her, doesn’t happen to anyone else.

There are two flanks to this struggle:

1. Seeking an upgrade of her discharge (including the narrative reason for her discharge) through the Board for Correction of Naval Records (BCNR), as well as by eventually seeking a disability rating through the VA system,

2. Telling her story to the media and Congress, so that significant changes can be made to the statutes and regulations that govern military recruiting, including:

a. requiring all recruits to be at least 18 years of age (in compliance with the norms of most other militaries around the world),
b. forbidding recruiters from speaking to any person who is under 18 years of age,
c. enhancing existing regulations that forbid recruiters from having sexual relations with potential recruits,
d. re-investigating all past allegations of misconduct by military recruiters that fall within the statute of limitations,
e. ensuring that victims of military sexual trauma have appropriate support after they are discharged, and
f. awarding purple hearts to survivors of MST.

Your support of this case can make a difference, as it will ensure that Annette will have legal counsel through all stages of this fight.

To close, here are some words from Annette herself about why this case is so important:

“I have sacrificed my heart, time, energy, freedom, safety, health, and relationships in order to seek justice for myself and other survivors. I will fight to break this cycle of abuse that has been going on for generations. I can’t fight this alone; I’ll need help from you all. Military recruiters talk to our young people every day, often trusted by parents, teachers and community members. Abuse from them leaves scars that will never heal. I’m tired of reading these depressing headlines of yet another recruiter, abusing their leadership position. This is why I’m fighting to make sure that my story has a different ending. This is about justice and making history. No human should ever have to worry about facing the kinds of retribution I dealt with for speaking out. I meant every damn word when I swore in, including the part about supporting and defending ‘the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ I didn’t know then that I would have to fight the Navy itself to protect the rights of the people from being abused by military recruiters and the broken system.”

Transcript of video interview

Stephanie Atkinson:
Why the Navy?

Lavender Gunderson:
I chose to join the Navy because I grew up in the South, and I was kind of brainwashed and indoctrinated into thinking that serving your country was this amazing deed. I wanted to be a search and rescue swimmer, because I grew up lifeguarding on the beach. So I was choosing between Coast Guard and Navy, and I chose the Navy. I really wanted to be on a ship and be on the ocean for adventure and just… I wanted to save lives and search for people.

Stephanie Atkinson:
That’s pretty cool. How did you get in? Did you meet a recruiter at school? Or did you go to a recruiting center or you saw an ad on TV? How did you actually enlist?

Lavender Gunderson:
I actually knew I wanted to enlist since middle school, and so I went to the recruitment station with my mom when I was 17. My mom gave parental consent and allowed me to enlist at 17. And that’s where I met the recruiter, Trace Oliver Harris. I was raped by my recruiter.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Shit. Okay. Do you want to talk about that? Do you feel comfortable talking about… Because this is a transgression, right?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Recruiters are not supposed to fraternize with enlistees or…

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah, I was a minor. I was 17 and the recruiter was 26, and he raped me. I don’t want to dive into the rape scene.

Stephanie Atkinson:
No, of course.

Lavender Gunderson:
I went into the details of it in the NNOMY article.

Stephanie Atkinson:
What happened next? You still want to go in the Navy, or?

Lavender Gunderson:
I was silent about it. I was in Delayed Entry Program, and for about eight months I kept quiet about it, and the abuse continued. I finally reported on him when I found out he was sexually harassing other recruits. And that’s when the denial stopped, and the light bulb clicked. I was able to really look into myself and what happened, and finally allow myself to believe and not have doubt that he raped me, and that he’s a predator.

I had Stockholm Syndrome and a trauma bond with him, and I have daddy issues, and that’s why I wasn’t able to recognize the abuse.
My chain of command for shipping out to basic, Portland Headquarters told me specifically not to tell anyone at basic training about my secret, the recruiter abuse, because then they would send me home.

Stephanie Atkinson:
So you talked to somebody in your command and they said…

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah, I did. I told my command what happened. And then I was in contact with SAPR and a military lawyer. My military lawyer, at the time in the middle of training, told me I didn’t qualify for sexual assault counseling for life because I didn’t qualify because I was not paid at the time of the Delayed Entry Program.

Stephanie Atkinson:
So wait, on one hand, you’re in the Delayed Entry Program, you’re experiencing this from the recruiter. And you want to be in the Navy, but if you tell about this, then that is used against you. And so they said, if you talk about it, we’ll send you home. Meaning you can’t complete?

Lavender Gunderson:
I won’t be able to complete training, and I wouldn’t qualify.

Stephanie Atkinson:
And you wouldn’t qualify. And furthermore, they’re not going to do anything about it.

Lavender Gunderson:
Right.

Stephanie Atkinson:
So tell me again, what is a SAPR?

Lavender Gunderson:
A SAPR means sexual assault prevention and response.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Right. So somebody who’s supposed to be an advocate for you and look out for you?

Lavender Gunderson:
They weren’t able to because I didn’t qualify because I wasn’t paid at the time of my assault because it happened in Delayed Entry Program. There’s no laws, no legislation, no policies in place to protect the recruits. It doesn’t matter if you’re a minor or an adult, if you’re raped in the Delayed Entry Program, you don’t qualify.

Stephanie Atkinson:
For any military benefits?

Lavender Gunderson:
For any military benefits, for a lawyer, for mental health, nothing, for medical, nothing.

Stephanie Atkinson:
No care. So you’re trying to complete basic training, which is stressful in and of itself, right?

Lavender Gunderson:
Right.

Stephanie Atkinson:
And you’ve got this thing going on and what’s going on with this recruiter guy? What’s going on?

Lavender Gunderson:
So I was dealing with court proceedings while in basic training. I got as far as I did tear gas, I did firefighting training. I was days away from going to battle stations and going to graduation. I wasn’t able to complete my run because I was injured.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Physical fitness?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yes. I wasn’t able to complete my physical fitness test because I was injured with a stress fracture of my right foot, my right heel and severe shin splints on both legs. And I was told by medical to keep on running if I wanted to graduate and actually see assistance for recruiter names.

Stephanie Atkinson:
So on the one hand you’ve gone to sick call and you’re injured, and you really shouldn’t be running. But on the other hand, if you want to graduate basic, you’ve got to run on an injury.

Lavender Gunderson:
Yes.

Stephanie Atkinson:
In order to get benefits so that you can…

Lavender Gunderson:
Receive treatment.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Receive treatment.
What did it all feel like for you? What were you thinking? How did you feel?

Lavender Gunderson:
It was disgusting. It felt like the military was retaliating and fighting against me. It felt like I was in a crossfire between Bend Police and the military because Bend Police had jurisdiction because I was a minor. And the state of Oregon, the age consent is 18.

Stephanie Atkinson:
So Bend police are trying to prosecute him for statutory rape and other things.

Lavender Gunderson:
Right.

Stephanie Atkinson:
And the Navy is trying to cover it up because it’s one of their recruiters. And you’re trying to get through basic training to be in the Navy.

Lavender Gunderson:
And become a sailor.

Stephanie Atkinson:
And becomes a sailor. What happened?

Lavender Gunderson:
I had a mental breakdown because I couldn’t run anymore and I knew I wasn’t going to graduate, and I couldn’t be in basic training any longer. I kept on getting ASMO’d set back in training.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Recycled in training.

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah, I kept on getting recycled in training because I held back either due to court proceedings or because I was sick or because I was injured. And I was already in basic training for about four months instead of nine weeks. And I couldn’t be there anymore. And I had a mental breakdown, cut my wrists. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t find anything sharp enough. And if I had access to cleaning supplies, I probably would’ve drank bleach. When I told the watch that I was suicidal, RDC came in, started cussing and screaming at me saying that I wasn’t really raped by my recruiter.

Then they took pictures of me when the ambulance arrived. Some medical personnel took pictures of my wrist. And at that point I knew that I didn’t have any rights over my body. I felt like a slave being government property.

Stephanie Atkinson:
The ambulance comes to get you, what happens next?

Lavender Gunderson:
And then I head to the VA Medical Hospital in Chicago. And they told me I needed to strip down so they could examine my body to see if I had
any other injuries from basic training or if I had self-harmed.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Your body or something?

Lavender Gunderson:
Right. And I didn’t want to, but they told me that they would force me to strip down if I didn’t willingly strip down. And they knew that I was a sexual assault survivor, and I think it could have been handled much differently. This is just not right.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Humiliation.

Lavender Gunderson:
I understand that they needed to make sure that I was healthy, but they should have done better. They should have been more trauma informed.

Stephanie Atkinson:
When you said that the case was going on. So there’s a case going on in the civilian world by the police who were trying to prosecute this guy.

Lavender Gunderson:
Trace Oliver Harris.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Trace Oliver Harris, the recruiter, for sexually assaulting you. And you’re trying to get through basic training, having a hard time. You’ve been recycled, you’ve been injured, you self-harmed, you’re in a VA hospital. And then what happens? What happened after that?

Lavender Gunderson:
I was being heavily drugged with Trazodone at night for just depression, anxiety, and helping with sleep. PTSD.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Did they say you had PTSD?

Lavender Gunderson:
No, no. They said that I had borderline personality disorder, which is false, which we’ll later get into that of why they did diagnose me with that. But I wasn’t getting any updates on court proceedings. I didn’t know what was happening with the recruiter. And then one day I had an appointment with my doctor and I told my doctor, “I don’t really like the meds I’m on. They make me feel loopy. I’m staring into space and disassociating for hours, staring at walls.” The Trazodone made me feel really loopy heavy. They had me on Trazodone and Zoloft and hydroxyzine. And she told me quote, “If you do not follow my treatment plan, I will get a court order to allow electric shock therapy.”

Stephanie Atkinson:
Wow. That accelerated.

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah.

Stephanie Atkinson:
And at any time, was the doctor talking to you or asking you about your experience in any way trying to treat you being a survivor of sexual assault?

Lavender Gunderson:
No, actually my lawyer and I are looking into filing a new complaint with the psychiatrist. So I remained calm, answered their questions. I told them that it would be hard to remember certain events because I was on heavy medication, and they said that’s understandable. And so I answered the questions the best as I could. And a couple of days later I found out that the jury agreed with me. All of them voted unanimously that there was enough evidence to go to trial.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Did your parent know?

Lavender Gunderson:
My family knew I was in the mental hospital.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Wow.

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah, they actually visited me.

Stephanie Atkinson:
They know why?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yes, they knew about the recruiter abuse after I reported on the recruiter, when I found out he was sexually harassing other recruits.

Stephanie Atkinson:
What was the outcome of grand jury?

Lavender Gunderson:
The outcome was that there was enough evidence to go to trial, and then he was arrested.

Stephanie Atkinson:
And after he was arrested?

Lavender Gunderson:
He was arrested after I was discharged because he lived in California, and the crime occurred in Oregon. So it took about a month or two to actually find him and arrest him.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Right, extradited by.

Lavender Gunderson:
But when the Navy found out that there was enough evidence to go to trial, they actually started to be nicer to me. I finally had power. I finally had rights over my body. I called 911.

Stephanie Atkinson:
From inside?

Lavender Gunderson:
Within the mental hospital, I called 911 right after I testified.

Stephanie Atkinson:
And what was the outcome of that?

Lavender Gunderson:
I had to go into a room and close the door, and barricade myself on the door to be able to tell the 911 operator like, “Hey, I was raped by my recruiter. The military was trying to cover it up. I was threatened with electric shock therapy. I need police here right away.”

Stephanie Atkinson:
Right in the VA facility?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yes. And I was still technically active duty calling 911 on the US Navy.

Stephanie Atkinson:
What was…

Lavender Gunderson:
The cops told me when they arrived that they couldn’t help me, that I needed to get out of the military ASAP, that I was in danger and that they didn’t have jurisdiction. And that they couldn’t help me, but they could make a report. And after that, after the police left, the doctors gave me a choice, shot or pill.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Shot or pill?

Lavender Gunderson:
Shot or pill to put me asleep. There were physically going to put me to sleep, knock me out to make me calm down.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Calm down, yeah.

Lavender Gunderson:
Which I didn’t want to, but I chose the pill. Because I wasn’t going to give them a reason to give me electric shock therapy. And then I requested multiple times at the hospital to switch psychiatrists. They refused.
Sorry, I’m getting shaky.

Stephanie Atkinson:
It’s okay. You want to stop?

Lavender Gunderson:
No, it’s okay. I’m just trying to remember it, and my brain is hard to remember. So the reason why they threatened me with electric shock therapy is… Thanks. Thanks.

Stephanie Atkinson:
It’s okay. I can see you’re physically trembling.

Lavender Gunderson:
Thanks.

Stephanie Atkinson:
We’ll take a break if that sounds good.
So how were you discharged ultimately? What happened?

Lavender Gunderson:
They finally agreed to let me go home as long as I signed discharge papers stating I had borderline personality disorder and I signed those documents under duress because I really needed to go home for my mental health, and I was unsafe in the VA mental hospital.

Stephanie Atkinson:
It’s like, I mean, at that point you’re just going to chew your arm off to get out of the trap, right? You just want to be away from these people. So they say, we can’t treat you because this happened when you were in the delayed entry program and you weren’t getting paid, so you weren’t really active duty. But now you are active duty, and we want to do all these things for you. But then finally we’ll let you go, but we’re going to discharge you with a medical saying that you have borderline personality.

Lavender Gunderson:
I actually do not have borderline personality disorder. I’ve been diagnosed by multiple psychiatrists and therapists and doctors that I actually have PTSD due to military sexual trauma I experienced while in delayed into program and in the Navy active duty.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Right. So where are you now? What’s the outcome? What do you want to do after all of this experience? It derailed your dream. You wanted to be a search and rescue team. That’s not going to happen in the context of the Navy. What’s the outcome? What’s going on post discharge?

Lavender Gunderson:
After the Navy, I tried killing myself in the Deschutes River with hypothermia, about a month after.

Stephanie Atkinson:
(Unintelligible) So after surviving your suicide attempt, which I’m glad you’re here, what in your life now, what gives you purpose? What gives you meaning? What makes you keep going every day? What are your goals? What’s your desire?

Lavender Gunderson:
My desire is to help other survivors who have experienced recruiter abuse and let them know to keep on living. And why I was so suicidal is because this is a whistleblower case. No one has gone out just publicly as a survivor about recruiter abuse. And so I felt really alone. There’s no support groups out there to help survivors of recruiter abuse, and I wanted to help change that and help create policies and laws and create a support group for recruiter abuse survivors. Dragonfly flying by.
I decided to become a massage therapist to work with trauma survivors and help them learn what therapeutic touch is in a safe environment. And because that’s something that helped me heal tremendously is through massage therapy because your body stores trauma. It’s a memory bank for trauma. So yeah, now I want to help sexual assault survivors.

Stephanie Atkinson:
So are you angry at the recruiter? Are you angry at the Navy?

Lavender Gunderson:
I am disappointed in the recruiter, but I’m more angry and disgusted with the United States Navy and how they retaliated with the recruiter’s abuse.

Stephanie Atkinson:
There were multiple times where they?

Lavender Gunderson:
They could have helped me. They could have made sure I graduated. They could have given me more opportunities to succeed. They could have told me, no, you don’t have to keep running on a fractured foot. They could have given me an actual lawyer and went after the recruiter better. The recruiter, he only got two months in prison.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Was he still recruiting?

Lavender Gunderson:
No, he actually got fired as a recruiter, but he didn’t get discharged from the Navy until after he went to prison.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Wow.

Lavender Gunderson:
Which my lawyer and I are still trying to figure out what exactly his discharge is because that’s pretty important. I want to know if he got a dishonorable discharge or not. That is huge. He should have gotten the dishonorable discharge.

Stephanie Atkinson:
I would hope so.

Lavender Gunderson:
And they did not clarify, which makes me think that they gave him an AWOL discharge.

Stephanie Atkinson:
I’m curious too. I mean, you say that you want to help other survivors, and there’s some other things too that you want to do. I know that you said that, well the reason why you came to Courage to Resist is we’re trying to help you get a discharge upgrade so that you can get the benefits that you’re entitled to as a veteran to get VA help, to get a diagnosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, to get benefits related to MST while in service. But beyond that, are there other things that are important to you?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah, we should discuss those things at the recruitment station right where it happened.

Stephanie Atkinson:
You want to go to the recruiting station?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah, let’s go.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Okay. We’re here at the Armed Forces Recruiting Center where you actually enlisted, right?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yes.

Stephanie Atkinson:
But I have another question for you. It’s about your tattoo on your arm. Can you tell me about Medusa here?

Lavender Gunderson:
Yeah, so I got this Medusa tattoo on Memorial Day in memory of sexual assault survivors from the military who have been abused or lost their lives. So I got this in memory because Medusa, the myth is well known that she’s a sexual assault survivor herself. So it’s a power of strength and resiliency.

Stephanie Atkinson:
That’s awesome.

Lavender Gunderson:
Thank you.

Stephanie Atkinson:
Let’s go tell them “Hi”.

Lavender Gunderson:
Yes. This is not another depressing headline. This is history in the making. There are two flanks to the struggle. I am seeking an upgrade for my discharge, including the narrative reason for the discharge, PTSD due to MST Military Sexual Trauma through the Board of Correction of Naval Records BCNR, as well as by eventually seeking a disability rating through the VA system. I’ve already won Service Connection. Here’s how you can help. I am telling my story to the media and Congress so that’s significant changes can be made to the statutes and regulations that govern military recruiting, including requiring all recruits to be at least 18 years of age in compliance with the norms of other militaries around the world, forbidding recruiters from speaking to any person who is under 18 years of age, enhancing existing regulations that forbid recruiters from having sexual relations with potential recruits, re-investigating all past allegations of misconduct by military recruiters that fall within the statutes of limitations, ensuring the victims of military sexual trauma have appropriate support after they are discharged, and awarding purple hearts to survivors of MST.

Your support in this case will make a difference in history. It will ensure that I have legal counsel through all stages of this fight.
I’m a trained sailor without a boat. I was taught to save the ship shipmate themself, but the sailors never did what they were taught. A boat with a hole must be plugged. And that’s what happened to me. I’m the hole. And the military buried me, covered me up with sand. My coffin filled up with lies. They were trying to cover up the flies, mistakes that caused me to almost die, but I refused to be buried alive under the waves of sailors, the men in uniform who are parasites of the sharks that allow the cowardly small fish to follow. And the woman in uniform who stand by watching the fins cutting sharp edges in the water, they know how it feels to be the one deep-sixed into the ocean while being dragged across the ship by an anchor as others watch patriotically singing their anthem.

Fuck you too. America, the brave raped me, plugged up the hole without consent, covered it up with a flag preaching “Hoo Yah” make America great again. I didn’t realize saving the integrity of the ship meant sinking others in order to preserve its name. I’m the hole in the corrupt system. Maybe it’s okay to let the boat sink. It’s time for a new one. New policies in place to protect the red, white, and blue people, to remember why we have the phrase, “Never leave a man behind”.