Jenifer Bellefleur is a jewelry designer, and owner of New Gild Jewelers in Minneapolis.

photo by Sarah Whiting
Jenifer Bellefleur is a jewelry designer, and owner of New Gild Jewelers in Minneapolis. photo by Sarah Whiting

submitted by Jenifer Bellefleur

My mother and I went to the shoe store to buy a new pair of running shoes. We had been warned that I would be doing a lot of running in the Army. The salesman measured my foot, and steered us to the children’s section.

My parents had been with me earlier, at the kitchen table, signing papers with the recruiter. When you join the Army as a minor, you don’t become an emancipated minor; that would require a judge to rule that you would be better off without a mom and dad. Instead, the Army becomes your parents — in loco parentis.

I grew up in a small town. Despite an SAT score ranking in the 99th percentile, there were no provisions for me to continue my education. With no opportunity for me to go to college, I turned to the Army. They offered me an occupational specialty: bomb squad.

In the final stage of the process of joining up, I was alone with the recruiter, a man in his 40’s. He said he thought we should celebrate with a kiss. I said no.

Basic training was hard, but my male superiors were respectful. It was after I reached the next stage, training for my job at a new base, that abuses began.

A background investigation was being conducted for the security clearance needed for me to do my job. I was interviewed by two men. They asked questions about my number of sexual partners. They raised the issue of the recruiter’s attempt to kiss me, which my mother had reported. They asked me why I lied about it, making it clear they believed the report was fiction.

Some time later, I went to the troop medical clinic for a health issue. On my back, with my feet in stirrups, I heard heavy breathing. The doctor leaned forward to try to kiss me. I burst into tears and left. I was still 17 years old. I described the incident to a mental health counselor at the hospital where the civilian wives went for care. Nothing came of it.

I finished my specialized training. The background check hadn’t yet been cleared, so I was sent to a holding unit to wait. Eventually, I opened up to a staff sergeant about the abuse that had happened. He said that I needed his protection, so I would not be railroaded by the background investigation.

To get a break from the monotony of the base, the staff sergeant offered me a ride in the country. I accepted. He told me I was special, and coaxed me into an intimate encounter. He was a 36-year- old married man, and was my direct supervisor who outranked me by five ranks. I was still 17.

I learned later that he told peers he “had himself a private.” They reported him, and I was questioned. I told the truth and they gave me an Article 15, which is a formal punishment — having sex with a married man not my husband. He was demoted. As part of protocol, this information about both of us was posted on a company bulletin board for 30 days. I was sexually harassed by other men after that.

The one option I saw to get away from this behavior on base was to marry, at 18. I found a husband. He outranked me significantly, and proved to be a poor choice. He was abusive. I divorced him a few years later.

Meanwhile, men in charge of my background check said I wasn’t a candidate for clearance because I had been labeled as promiscuous and a liar regarding sexual assault and harassment. The Army sent me to secretarial school. I fought it. My fight managed to keep me in the Army for three of my four required years. I was 20.

The decades that followed were draining, as I suffered from insomnia, depression, and anxiety. I managed to put myself through undergraduate school at the University of Minnesota, and graduate school at Augsburg. I worked. I raised two children. Today, I own a business and have a loving family.

Two years ago, I successfully made a case to obtain disability pay for the emotional impact of my experiences. No one was specifically held accountable. I was a vocal advocate for myself, and found things in my military record to support my claim. I discovered on message boards how many women lose their status after reporting sexual assault. The military is publicly more accountable now at handling this kind of behavior.

I’ve come to view my military experience as an environment of unchecked male authority. As more women tell stories similar to mine, not only have we raised awareness of what has happened, but these conversations are reshaping how society views the past.

We realize that some of the events we thought were normal, or our fault, or “boys being boys,” or something we had to put up with, were none of those things.

Many veterans have experienced homelessness, debilitating trauma, unplanned pregnancies, legal battles, and more. Yet, so many of us have not only survived, but thrived. I am lucky to be among those who can honestly say that I have triumphed despite this past — as a wife, a mother, a boss, and a friend — in ways that I can be proud of. Since then, I have worked hard to provide opportunities to young women, so that none fall through the cracks like I did. I help female veterans through the Veteran’s Administration, and anywhere else that I can.

It’s what I can do — I do it with love.