Saturday, 15 December 2018
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Miette Wells: A Different Kind of Combat

She fought her wars on two fronts.

Miette Wells, who was a law enforcement canine handler in the U.S Air Force, served from 1987 to 1991, part of the time on alien soil. As with her fellow American military members, she faced a foreign enemy during Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Shield/Storm in Kuwait. Her second foe: some fellow members of the military.

A survivor of military sexual trauma and a nationally known expert in that field, her current battle is on behalf of women, both veterans and active military, hoping to spare them her own experiences. As director of the G.I. Joan project and a military sexual assault counseling supervisor, she provides training for people who work with/serve women veterans as well as information and support for women veterans. She oversees art classes for both men and women veterans of all ages offering yet another way to shed the traumas they may have suffered. They may have served from the Vietnam war on or may be active military. She also works with veterans in other ways, including serving as commander of American Legion Post 105 in Hallsville and Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Program director for American Legion Auxiliary Unit 320 in Gilmer.

During the year ending Sept. 30, 2017, 6,769 military men and women reported they were sexually assaulted in all branches of the U.S. military.

Upon hearing the experiences Wells endured as a woman in a male-dominated sphere, the question arises whether she regrets having joined the military. The answer is a firm, pragmatic no.

“People ask me was it worth it and all that,” she said. Certainly, no one wants to experience the pain she endured, but, “I wouldn’t be who I am now, and I like who I am now and I like what I’m doing. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t because of what I went through.”

Wells, not long out of high school, knew college wasn’t for her. She decided the military could offer her training and education. She enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and chose law enforcement as her specialty and then became a canine handler.

“I loved the military. I loved my job. I loved my dog,” she said. “It was just the people who at the time were idiots, and the career I picked was well, male-dominated. … I went into a male-dominated career — the military — and then on top of that, male-dominated for law enforcement, and then even on top of that, completely male-dominated for canine,” she said.

Nevertheless, she met the challenges and survived, and in a calm deliberate voice, describes the threats by men who were supposed to be her allies.

“There were times when I went out (to) places that I pretty much didn’t think I was coming back, and it wasn’t because of where we were going. It was because of the guys who I was going with. They were very open about it. I mean it wasn’t something that was kept hush-hush. It was, ‘Hey, if you make it back, you’re lucky,’” she recalled.

“They would put me in situations where if anything happened I was the first one dead.”

They also warned that her death might not come at enemy hands, she said.

“There were a couple of times that they actually tried themselves, but I had a really good dog and a really good guardian angel,” she said.

Her efforts to find support were fruitless.

“No, I got no backing,” she said. “I tried at first to do the military thing and go to (my) supervisor but I couldn’t because my supervisor was the one who was doing it, so I had to go to (his) supervisor.” She was told it was best for her to leave the base because she would never find support there. She described the encounter with the master sergeant who conceded that he could investigate her situation but it would do no good.

“It’s not gonna change anything and, in fact, once I start investigating, it’s just gonna get worse for you,” he told her.

When she joined the Air Force, she assumed regulations would protect her from the treatment she endured, calling herself naïve.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I mean, I knew I was going into a male-dominated career field. I just didn’t realize I was actually putting my life in danger by going in, not because I was going into the military but because I was going into” law enforcement. Every patrol had deadly potential.

“We went out every day and we could not come back, but when I went out, I didn’t just look at who was out there, I also had to figure out who was with me to figure out if I was going to come back or not.”

She was by no means the only woman who experienced such trauma and although things have changed for the better, there is still a way to go. When she returned to civilian life, she still found no one who would speak on behalf of the women, so she did.

The woman without an advocate became the advocate.

“There was pretty much nobody and I didn’t want that to happen to anyone else,” she said.

“Overall, I think it’s getting better for women,” but changing a culture where simply being female equals being inferior takes a long time.

In the military, being called a female was considered derogatory and anything female-related was looked upon as a character flaw, she said, drawing insults such as, “You throw like a girl. You’re girlie. You’re a sissy,” she said.

The message was, “You need to buckle up and be like a guy,” she said. “You need to be a man.” Wells wanted to know why.

“Why can’t I be a woman and still get the job done and have the feminine characteristics,” she recalls thinking. The answer was that she could.

“One of the reasons my dog absolutely loved me was because I didn’t treat him like the guys did,” she said. Military canines experienced deterrent training, she said, explaining it this way, “If you don’t do what I say, I hurt you.

“It wasn’t positive reinforcement and I didn’t agree with it so I didn’t do it. I did positive reinforcement with my dog and my dog absolutely would have died before anybody got anywhere near me.”

Every bit a military member, her canine partner, Killer, also became her guardian.

“When you’re with a military dog and you’re standing side by side … that means I treat you pretty much as my equal, but when I stood by my dog, he always had his paw in front of my foot.”

The dog’s message: “If you’re going anywhere near her, I will kill you,’” she said.

“You would have had to kill him because he absolutely protected me from everything and he didn’t do that with his other handlers.”

The special relationship the two had was born out in the moniker Fluffy Puppy, her private name for Killer. The nickname served two purposes, she said. It was how she saw him and it was a jab at what she describes as the “huge testosterone guys” she served with.

The military has since adopted positive reinforcement in canine training, she said. One reason is because dogs were being taken near civilians more and more, she said.

Post-military, Wells worked with various groups and individuals and eventually regulations were put on the books to protect military members, but they don’t do enough, she said.

“They start at, ‘OK, we’ll tell all of the soldiers and all the airmen how to stay safe and how to be a better unit,’” she said.

“I keep saying ‘No, it has to start from the top down.’ If you have a commander, somebody who’s in charge, who allows this to happen, it doesn’t matter if the person next to you gets as many briefings as they can about how you’re supposed to be, you know, you’re supposed to cover my back, they’re not going to because they can get away with it.”

Other changes had easier remedies. A few years after she left the service, she stumped the staff at the Veterans Administration facility. She needed a pregnancy test and they didn’t have any. They had to send her elsewhere to get one. That’s no longer a problem.

One ongoing battle is finding psychological care for veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental trauma. Veterans face a three- to four-month wait to see a therapist and the VA finds it easier to administer drugs to treat mental trauma, Wells said, a move that also saves money.

“It’s much easier to medicate a person so they don’t think about anything than it is to seek therapy so that they can work through whatever problem they’ve been through,” she said. “How about let’s just find out why you’re depressed first,” she said.

The veterans pay the price. “… When you first walk in and you say, ‘I feel depressed,’ and they just hand you a pill, and then you say, ‘I can’t sleep,’ and they say, ‘Oh, here’s another pill. Oh, I’m tired. Okay, here’s another pill. I don’t wanna think about things because I’m having flashbacks. Okay, here’s another pill.’” And pretty soon you’re sitting on the couch drooling and that’s your life,” she said.

Of legislation that would allow veterans to access private doctors, including therapists, she raises another point.

Many of the doctors who treat former military members, even those who work for the VA, were not in the military.

“I spent probably more time in therapy teaching my therapist about what it was like to be in the military as a woman instead of actually getting therapy,” she said.

Wells and her husband, Doug, moved to rural East Texas in 2004. From here, she conducts her work locally in person and online giving her counsel to veterans. She travels often to Fort Hood to train and advise veterans and their caregivers.

She and Doug are the parents of two adult children, a daughter and a son who is stationed in England, a member of the U.S. Air Force. She fails to hide the pride in her voice as she remembers when her son told her he wanted to join the military. When she asked which branch, he replied, “The Air Force, of course, Mom. I’m smart.”


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