When Quaker House celebrated its 50th Anniversary on September 21, 2019, with a special event in Fayetteville, many of the former directors and a few people who had been helped by or associated with Quaker House in the past attended as special guests. Monisha Rios was one of those special guests. This what she had to say during the event:
“My name is Monisha Rios.
I am more than a veteran, I am more than a woman. I am a Viequense. That means my family and my ancestors come from the small Island of Vieques, which is off the Island of Puerto Rico, which is a current colony of the United States.
As Lynn [Newsom] was telling you, I came to Quaker House kind of in an emergency. I had tried to access care at the VA, many different VA hospitals, unsuccessfully because, unfortunately VA Hospitals are still not entirely safe spaces for women to receive care, for military sexual trauma survivors to receive care, and so I was going without for far too long. And, while I was in this desert, I found myself longing to not wake up.
When I heard that there was a conversation on moral injury happening in my community, I did reach out, but I reached out as an activist. I reached out wanting to know, ‘Are you going to have this conversation outside the confines of the cis heterosexual male combat experience? Do I have a voice in this? Do I exist in your world?’ Thankfully, I did. Thankfully, Lynn was like ‘Yeah, we know about MST [military sexual trauma]. Come on down. Come talk with us and let’s see what we have available to you and, also, we’ll give you the floor.’ So not only in that moment did she provide me with instant relief through just recognizing my humanity and my need, she also empowered me. She allowed me to speak directly to the problems that were real for me in my life. This doesn’t happen very often. And as I became more and more connected with Joanna [Quaker House mental health counselor] over time, I found another way that I could come to terms with my moral injuries. Because, it isn’t only about being assaulted or witnessing assault or watching my fellow soldiers kill themselves or hearing about how soldiers in my unit were raping children and buying them for sex. For me, as a Viequense, as a Taína woman, my moral injury also comes from the awareness that we are an empire, that we are still colonizing places, that we are raping the earth, as well as that we are the number one polluter in the world–that our over 4800 defense sites across the world, on every continent, in every country come with violence, come with murder, come with rapes, come with the intentional poisoning of waters and lands, come with torture.
I can’t have these conversations in VA Hospitals because my colleagues are often too uncomfortable with reality. My colleagues don’t understand that many of us, after our time on active duty, need to talk about peace, we need to talk about the realities of war as we’ve seen them and lived them and performed them. I’m a perpetrator. I’m a witness. I’m a victim. With Quaker House, I can be my whole self. I can find whole healing. I don’t have to just focus on a tiny aspect of my experience because that’s what my counselor is comfortable with. That is what has ultimately saved my life and kept me going.
Joanna always reminds me that it’s me, that I did the work. And that’s true, because healing is oftentimes a choice. However, I could not have done that without support. I couldn’t have done that without freedom and liberation and the humanization that Quaker House provides.”
Subsequently, Lightly on the Ground and Groundswell radio show host Patricia Stansbury interviewed Monisha back at Quaker House in a (semi) quiet room during the open house that followed the anniversary event. These are Monisha’s words (with most of Patricia’s excellent interview questions omitted, just for flow of reading what Monisha had to say).
“I was in during the Persian Gulf Era, originally, 1997-1998 timeframe.
So, earlier I spoke about how, as a survivor of military sexual violence, I struggled finding safe access to adequate care through the VA System and that that is why places like Quaker House (which, really, there aren’t many places like Quaker House), are so important. Also, because a lot of times, what those of us who have been in the military experience is moral injury and that’s not really considered valid yet by the VA Healthcare System and so practitioners are often intimidated by that or don’t want to touch it. What I experience as moral injury comes from different aspects of my time on active duty and as a veteran: as a perpetrator of violence against innocent people, as part of a violent system that exploits and rapes and murders, and as a witness to abuses of all kinds. And then, as a target, as a victim of certain things, of certain crimes.
You don’t necessarily need to be in a combat situation or fire your rifle on someone to perpetrate violence in capacity as a soldier, you can be part of that system you can be in a different role and still be part of the harm that is caused by that violence, you can still be complicit in that.
I had an honorable discharge, although that I had to fight for. I was going for a medical discharge, but part of retaliation for me reporting sex crimes was a threat to be sent to prison if I didn’t recant and that there was no way they would allow me to get a medical discharge for what chemicals I had been exposed to. So my only option was an honorable discharge or jail.”
Patricia Stansbury then asked, “If someone encounters someone and they can see they are struggling with things such as this, how does a lay person – I mean compassion, love, all that – how does that show, how does that read?”
“I think, right off the bat, listening is the most important, just being present. Not necessarily listening to respond but just being there and then just following the lead of the person. Sometimes they may not know what they need or want. Sometimes it might be confusing and uncomfortable but just try to stay strong in those really uncomfortable moments and just stay present, and if the person no longer wants another presence with them, accept that. Don’t make it about you. don’t assume that you can [help], either. I think that’s been, probably, from my own experience, one of the most beneficial things that anyone has ever done for me. And then, when I finally do get the courage to reveal certain aspects of my experience, the fear is so huge that the way that it comes out might be messy or ugly, and to please not judge that.”
Patricia asked Monisha if she has been back to Vieques since the big flood, and what is there.
“There is electricity. They still need a hospital. That’s been a fight.
The unexploded ordinance — so after the US invaded and took Puerto Rico from the Spanish under the promise of independence for Puerto Ricans, then they colonized, instead. The Navy expropriated approximately two-thirds of the island of Vieques, which meant my relatives and many others had to leave their homes. They were either shipped off to other islands or work programs on the continental US or everyone was moved to the center of the island, and one part of the island acted as a bombing range where, for over 60 years, all types of bombs, different types of ordinance, chemical warfare was tested. All but real war trainings took place. The first one was called Operation [s/l] Fortrex. The chemical weapons that were tested were tested on people’s farm animals. The Navy is supposed to be cleaning that up because Vieques is one of the few places that has successfully and peacefully gotten the United States Military out. Slowly, slowly, slowly the land is supposedly becoming safe again. But the Navy is using open detonation to sort of “clean up” all the mess that they left behind. But people have cancers. Some of my relatives have died. It’s just full of contamination there, and so this is a major concern with the increased strength of the hurricanes as a result of the climate crisis and that’s a major issue that’s still in Vieques.
So when you ask me what’s still there, I think of that and I think of the ceiba tree where our ancestors live. It’s a sacred tree, and it’s sacred in a couple of different cultures including Africa–I can’t remember the name they call it there among those tribes–but its where we communicate with Spirit, with our Creator Atabei, and it’s where our loved ones go when they die and where we can communicate with them. It’s a particular tree, so there are ceiba trees in other parts of Puerto Rico. This one in Vieques is, I want to say it’s over 400 years old, and so it’s really special.”
To hear the full radio shows (including some of our other special Anniversary guests), use the following links. Monisha’s words during the anniversary is on the Groundswell show and start at 13:36. Monisha’s interview later at Quaker House is shared during the Lightly on the Ground show and her portion starts at 17:30.
Our special thanks to Patricia Stansbury for bringing her audio recording equipment to Fayetteville for our anniversary, recording it, and sharing her skills and creating several engaging and important radio shows from the material.
Also, for more reading material on the US Military’s exploitation of Vieques and the health consequences, here is just one article from The Atlantic, published in 2016.