‘Facing Stigma’ with Anuradha Bhagwati

“I grew up in New York City after my parents immigrated from India. My parents controlled a lot of what I did growing up and that’s the way a lot of Indian households are. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters to help even out the pressure, so all the attention and expectation was on me. They were both professors so education was a big part of their lives and inherently mine. After high school they wanted me to continue to go to school and have a nice, safe career, but I wanted to join the military. I have this part of me that was always into adventure and proving myself and I think that’s why the Marine Corps appealed to me. It was so extreme and physical and I really loved the idea of being a part of something bigger than myself. I ended up joining the Marines after college much to my parents’ shock. As much as I loved the Marines and everything it stood for, I wasn’t prepared for was how little I was accepted as a woman. There’s a lot of sexual harassment that takes place in the military and that can be a hostile environment to be in. A lot of people still experience retaliation for stepping up and I personally can speak to that. As an officer, I had a lot more power and privilege than my enlisted Marines and some of them were really mistreated by the system. It didn’t feel right for that to happen and me not do something about it. I tried to speak up on behalf of my Marines even though I knew that the command climate was not open to hearing that. My defining experience within the Marines was really the mistreatment of women and because of that, I decided to get out after a big sexual harassment investigation. I was a Marine through and through so it was really hard to make that decision to transition out. I had a lot of difficulty feeling that sense of belonging. I felt like I didn’t belong in the Marine Corps, but really felt like I didn’t belong outside either.

I started graduate school shortly after getting out, but I didn’t feel like I was physically, mentally, or emotionally present there. I was going through the motions and never really tapped into what was going on inside me. I didn’t know how to talk to people about my military experience so I walked around with this anger and rage all the time. All of that anger and feelings of betrayal that I experienced led me to get help and seek intensive treatment. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Civilian clinicians really understood the cause and effect aspect of my experiences and were really helpful in connecting the dots on why I felt the way I did. It took me a while to realize that I hadn’t been able to connect those dots because the people who were defining harassment and mistreatment for me in the military had no idea what it felt like. I knew what felt wrong and I kept saying it was wrong, but it was never validated as wrong by people in power. That trauma was based on a lot of powerful people denying my pain and the pain of other women I worked with. The incredible thing about coming out on the other end of that experience was finding the tools to heal, connecting with my body and feelings, and then helping other people. I started writing as a form of therapy and as an artistic expression to help heal from my experiences. When I began writing this book, I really wanted to tell a vulnerable story so that others might find some solidarity through what I had written. I feel like sharing these stories is more about being able to connect with other human beings and a larger community. I never felt like I could change these issues on the inside so it feels gratifying to bring them to light and make a change from the outside.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war