The 22 Million People Left Out Of The Presidential Debate

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Miyoko Hikiji is a U.S. Army and Iowa National Guard veteran, author, and Democratic candidate for the Iowa State Senate. The views expressed here are her own.

There’s been no shortage of analysis about the second presidential debate on Sunday. But for me, what was not said spoke the loudest.

As one of 22 million military veterans in the United States, I believe we deserve a discussion about how the new administration will assist the up to 20% of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and developed post-traumatic stress disorder after deployment. We are owed a plan of action that will save the lives of the approximately 20 veterans who commit suicide daily, seven who are under the age of 50. Our 1.3 million active-duty personnel need greater understanding of the new president’s intent to deploy (or not) “boots on the ground” in Syria while their family members hold their breath, prepare to exhale, and make it through.
The 5,240 service members — women and men — who reported being sexually assaulted in 2015 deserve a comprehensive transformation of military culture so sexual assault in the Armed Forces can be properly investigated and litigated. But neither candidate addressed that — or the much greater prevalence of sexual assault that goes unreported. According to the 2015 annual military sexual assault report, more than 19,000 service members experienced assault in the prior year — over three times the report rate.

This lack of acknowledgment is, in essence, the issue. While we all want policy at the forefront of politics, and character at the core of our chosen candidate, what we’re longing for is a connection — to our nominee and each other.

It was back in the '80s, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

When my deployment memoir, which places a spotlight on sexual harassment, was published, I spent two years promoting it at nearly 150 book signings and speeches. At most of these events, at least one woman would lean in to confess:

“I know what you’re talking about.”

“Believe me, I’ve been there.”

“I haven’t told anyone, but that happened to me.”

“It was back in the '80s, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Photo Courtesy of Miyoko Hikiji.
These one-liners made me feel less alone. Soon after, I began using my writing as an outreach tool and a therapeutic vehicle for veterans coping with military sexual trauma. That’s when those hastily muttered phrases expanded into alarming narratives of rape, retaliation, ruined relationships, substance abuse, depression, prescription drug overdoses, and suicide attempts.

The women told me about their careers — flight school, promotions, college classes, and engagements — coming to a halt after their assaults. Women who had jumped from airplanes and climbed mountains could now barely leave their homes some days. They had recurring nightmares that kept them from sleeping, and all-day anxiety that made them unfocused and unproductive. They hated the smell of certain colognes. They kept their backs to the walls.

There is, to me, no “getting over” trauma — but there is moving forward. Coping skills can be mastered, and justice for perpetrators can be won — but first, the trauma needs to be addressed head-on.

As I watched the second presidential debate with 25 other devoted Democrats and Clinton supporters in a clubhouse at Adam Ridge in Johnston, IA, though, I didn’t see any acknowledgement of our pain. As the questions came, I wondered whether what I saw and heard resembled the progress I was hoping for. Where was my voice in the debate? Where were the stories of service members and veterans? Despite all the data and news coverage of struggling vets over the past decade, we were met only with silence.

And so I’ll raise the question here. I’ll bring it up tomorrow, too, and the day after — right up until veterans, especially female veterans, active-duty personnel, and their families get some answers. You see, in order to live the American dream, sometimes you have to fight for it. That’s why I’m so proud to run for the legislature in my home state of Iowa, because I want to fight sexual violence, advocate for veterans and their families, and meet these kinds of tough questions with legislation that helps all Iowans feel safer and better equipped to take steps to make their dreams a reality.

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