Editor's note: "Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line" is a fierce and jarring telling of one woman's experience of war, military sexual trauma and her ensuing PTSD, and working to prove herself in the male-dominated world of the U.S. Army.
From the very first sentence —"A few hours before I am raped, two officers in a bar try to corner me and steal my panties" — Ryan Leigh Dostie, a Persian-Farsi/Dari Linguist in Military Intelligence, grips the reader in an emotional and viscerally personal account, detailing the exhilarating highs of finding a sense of belonging in an institution like the Army, to the crushing lows of feeling that same institution turns its back on one of its own. The memoir follows her from her childhood in a strict Christian cult and her pre-9/11 enlistment, to her days of basic training and deployment to Iraq, which she calls "the perfect place for rage."
In an excerpt from Formation, published in June 2019, Dostie has reported being raped by a fellow soldier and is meeting with an investigator from the Army Criminal Investigation Command two weeks after the attack.
Ryan Leigh Dostie. Photo: Dostie's website.
What they Want
The investigator finally reschedules our interview. He sits me down in an interrogation chair. It feels like an interrogation chair. His dark wooden desk is huge. He sits calmly behind it, papers meticulously stacked in front of him. A tape recorder whirls between us, loud in the tense silence. I am huddled in the hard wooden chair, arms wrapped around my knees. I look like a child, I know, fists clenched around my uniform pants. I feel like a child, tiny and fragile, staring up at him as he stacks the papers and begins.
The first few questions are easy enough. Where had I been; how had I known the analyst; how much did I drink. Then things take a turn for the darker and without looking up, with no real warning, the investigator asks, "Do you feel he raped you?"
I cringe at the word. It hangs in my mouth, heavy and taking up space. I can say all your four-letter words—shit, fuck, cunt—just don't make me say the R word. I hate saying it out loud, to people in power, who judge me for the word used and resent me for making them face its implications. I swallow the word instead and say, "Yes."
He finally looks up and I see the first breath of fight in him. "So you said no." It's not a question but an assertion, a natural ending to his sentence. My brow furrows slightly. "I said I didn't know who he was, and that I didn't understand what was happening. I told him to stop, but I . . . sometimes when I drink I get confused and maybe I said it in Japanese." I watch his face darken and I rush to add, "Because, like in Japanese you can say whole sentences in a few words, do you know what I mean? It's . . . hard to explain but I just switch over sometimes. If I've had too much to drink. Sometimes." My Japanese had triggered his Spanish; the snarling of "cállate" into my ear is suddenly loud and persistent in the back of my skull. I shudder and look down at my hands, feeling like I have been punched in the gut.
"But you didn't say 'no,' " he pushes.
"I don't know if I said 'no' exactly, but I did say 'stop.' I said I didn't know what was going on." I pause, mouth dry, trying to figure out why my heart is racing suddenly, and add, "I pushed at him. Like pushed him away. Or I tried to."
"So you think he raped you."
"Are you sure?"
"But you didn't say no."
"It was very clear that I didn't want . . . " Again my stomach clenches tight and I'm running out of words. "I didn't want what happened."
The investigator leans back, face closed, mouth slightly pursed. "You understand that in order for sex to be rape, you have to have said no."
I'm angry now. My knuckles are white against my knees, boots planted on the floor. "So you're saying that if someone has sex with a sleeping person or someone who's unconscious, that's not rape because they didn't say no?"
He glares at me now, as if I'm being a difficult child who refuses to understand reason. "There are different rules for that sort of thing. You weren't asleep or unconscious."
"I might have been! I don't know how he got in the room and I wasn't able to . . . I wasn't . . . " Frustration closes off my throat and I turn my face away, ashamed.
"How did he get in your room?"
"I said I don't know." I want to scream it, but it came out as a harsh whisper.
"Did you let him in?"
"No. I mean . . . I don't think so." "But it's possible that you did."
"I don't know. I don't think so?" I glance up, wanting him to agree with me, to say that it's true, I probably didn't open the door, that I had had too much to drink, how would I have made that walk from my bed to the door, how had I woken from my drunken slumber from someone knocking, how could I have said, Sure, come in, knowing these things didn't seem possible or like me at all, and yet his jaw is set. He shows me nothing. "But even if I did . . . " I close my eyes with those words, not wanting to ever imagine them to be true, the thought makes me sick. "Even if I did, that doesn't mean I wanted to have sex with him."
I hate the whirl, whirl, whirl of the tape recorder as it fills the silence and he takes his time, scratching his pen onto paper. "Did he rape you?" he asks again.
I fucking hate that word. That dirty, soiled, shameful word. Don't make me say it. "Yes."
"But you don't remember saying no?"
I drop my head into my hands. We're chasing our tails, going round and round. It's getting all muddled in my head. How could it not be rape? I know how I feel; I know I hadn't wanted . . . that. That thing that happened. How could that not be rape? "I'm not making this up," I say, desperate, so desperate to be heard.
"Did he rape you?" he asks again. And again. Round and round we go. I'm lost, so thoroughly turned around that I've given up trying to orient myself. I can't find north. I break. "I don't know what it was, but
I know what he did was wrong."
He writes clear and hard onto the paper, and funny how that sentence is the only thing that makes it into the official report.
The investigators want me to be a whore. They're looking for some sordid sexual past, interviewing anyone there that night, as well as some of my fellow platoon members. They want me to have spread my legs quickly and often. Two CID officers lean against the doorpost of Sergeant Forst's barracks door, my current squad leader, grinning down at her. They laugh, loudly, so pleased to be talking to her, with her pink, cherub cheeks and wispy pixie blond hair. They look like wolves to me, all teeth, tall to her short, towering—looming really—but no one seems to share my newfound fear of men. Sergeant Forst's cheeks are flushed; she laughs with them and I know I'm the irrational one. I can't hear them but it can hardly be official business. I sneak up the stairs to my floor, not wanting them to see me.
Sergeant Forst fills me in later, that between flirting they asked about my sexual past. Did I have many lovers? Was I promiscuous? How dis- appointed were they when she told them I had no lovers, that in my six months at the post, I had yet to fall into a single bed? Did they have a box to check about fundamentalist Christian upbringings that preached against premarital sex? How much had that messed up their report then, that I had believed sex was sacred, shared only in love, cherished and hallowed? Not much, in the end. They shifted tactics, countering with, "So she could be protecting her reputation, then. She doesn't want anyone to know she slept with him."
The report will eventually say that Rivera's girlfriend tells them I would never sleep with the likes of Kevin Hale. "So she's embarrassed," they reason, an angle they'll type hard into white paper, a suggestion that I'm "covering it up" to spare myself the shame.
I would have been damned had I been a slut, but I was just as damned for not having been one.
Excerpted from FORMATION: A WOMAN'S MEMOIR OF STEPPING OUT OF LINE. Copyright © 2019 by Ryan Leigh Dostie. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.