Lt. Col. Celia FlorCruz, 55, has done a lot in her life. She graduated from West Point at a time when women were just being allowed in. She flew a Medevac helicopter in a war zone. She’s now a top officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and is married to JBLM I Corps Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl.
What she’s never done, until now, is speak about her personal experience as a victim of sexual assault, both in college and in the U.S. Army.
She’ll be sharing her stories during a speech at Pacific Lutheran University on Tuesday, Feb. 17. I recently interviewed her in the KPLU studios.
First Assault At University of Virginia
FlorCruz was a freshman at the University of Virginia when she was subject to a sexual assault in her dorm room.
“I was 17. I was very young,” FlorCruz said.
The perpetrator was someone she had been dating. She says her roommate walked in during the assault, but was shoved out by the assailant. Afterwards, FlorCruz left a note for her roommate.
“I wanted her to know that that was not something that I wanted,” she said.
The roommate told the resident assistant, who took it to the senior resident assistant, who happened to be Katie Couric, later of network news fame. FlorCruz says Couric took it to university officials and, in the words of FlorCruz, the matter was “dealt with.”
FlorCruz says she’s “never talked about it” publicly or a subsequent assault in the military.
Assault In The Barracks
FlorCruz says the second assault happened years after college, in an Army barracks — something she says she would “never report.”
“I was assaulted while I was asleep. I was alone in the barracks. I had also been intoxicated, which was the reason I was asleep,” FlorCruz said.
She says she had left a gathering to go back to the barracks because, “I thought, I’m going to be drunk pretty soon, and I need to get out of here.”
She says the reason she wouldn’t report it is because she would have paid the price instead of the perpetrator.
“I would be the one who would have been moved to a different company. I would have been the one who was called into question,” FlorCruz said.
She says it’s a problem many women who came forward faced. But, she says, that was a long time ago, and now things are better for victims.
In the Army, FlorCruz, now works to stop sexual assault in a professional capacity. In addition to serving as the soldier readiness officer for the 7th Infantry Division, she also heads SHARP, the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention Program at JBLM. The program started in 2012.
Not Advising Other Victims To Speak Out
When asked why she hasn’t spoken in the past about her own experiences, FlorCruz says she didn’t want to be labeled a victim. And that’s something she believes she has in common with other victims.
She says she expects some fallout, “personal, not professional," from speaking out. Already, one of her brothers has expressed anxiety about it.
Contrary to popular belief, FlorCruz does not think encouraging others to speak out about a sexual assault is necessarily a good idea.
“People who care about you will be hurt when you talk about it,” FlorCruz said.
She says talking about an assault is not always the best way to heal.
“My experience working with victims, which is fairly extensive for a lot of years, is that sometimes when we encourage a victim, of a sexual assault or other trauma, to speak out, it’s harmful to them,” she said.
FlorCruz says the healing trajectory can be very different, so “you might be encouraging someone to speak out in a public venue and then find that that’s been a really bad thing and sets them back,” she said.
'Violence That We're Trained For'
Asked whether she thinks there’s something about the military environment that makes it ripe for sexual assault, she says she doesn’t believe so.
“I can see why people would think that, because our job as a general rule is to inflict violence upon anyone who would compromise the safety and peace of the American people. But that’s violence that we’re trained for and it’s contained and directed in an ethical manner. So I really don’t see the military as having a culture that contributes more to sexual assault,” she said.
But she says the problem of sexual assaults on campus and sexual assaults in the military have the common factor of similar demographics. The two institutions can learn from each other, she says.
Something to Teach
FlorCruz says she’s speaking publicly now because Dr. Tom Krise, president of Pacific Lutheran University, asked her to address PLU’s Spring Spotlight Series “…and Justice for All?”
She says she and her husband have gotten to know Dr. Krise and his wife, Patti, and have spent time on the PLU campus, which is very near the military base.
FlorCruz says she hopes that sharing her own experience, and talking about what can be done to reduce sexual assaults, will benefit students.