“One pedal in front of the other,” the hurt is falling away.
Sharika Blockett is feeling stronger and more self-confident as she rides with fellow female veterans up the side of a steep hill southeast of Pine Flat Reservoir.
The Iraq War veteran served 10 years in the Army, from 1994 to 2004, rising to the rank of sergeant. In Iraq, there were many nights where she fell asleep with a gun lying across her chest.
But the enemy never wounded her – that is, not the people she was sent to fight. Her scars come from American soldiers, men she thought she was serving this country beside.
She joined the military to “serve and give back,” she says, but the experience was instead one filled with trauma.
More than a decade later, it’s still hard to talk about. Healing is a gradual process, one she kept working on last week during a four-day program with Ride 2 Recovery’s Women’s Initiative held at Wonder Valley Ranch Resort & Conference Center, northeast of Sanger.
In the mornings, she cycled with other women who experienced sexual, mental or physical trauma while serving in the military, and in the afternoons and evenings, they would circle up to listen to speakers and participate in group therapy, “conversations and activities to foster resilience and connection,” facilitated by partner organization Project Rebirth.
For Blockett, the action of “moving forward” while cycling up a hill helps her do the same with her thoughts and emotions.
It’s peeling the onion back ’cuz everybody is still in therapy, recovery. It’s a daily thing. It just doesn’t stop … the littlest thing can cause you to have a setback or trigger you to have a nightmare or a flashback.
Ride 2 Recovery’s cycling focus originates with president and founder John Wordin, a cyclist who participated in three U.S. Olympic Trials and earned a bronze medal in the 1989 U.S. National Championships. In 2008, Wordin received a telephone call from a recreational therapist with Veterans Affairs suggesting he create a program using cycling that could be an alternative therapy to address post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and physical injury.
Ride 2 Recovery holds two women’s gatherings a year. Last week’s was the third at Wonder Valley. Participants bike, on average, between 300 and 500 miles during a stay.
Blockett, also a wife and mother of three girls, is new to cycling. She laughs when she says she is now a 39-year-old “homemaker” in North Carolina. She has overcome a lot to get to where she is today.
“When you have people sexually harassing you, when you are in a relationship where you are being physically assaulted, verbally assaulted, it tears you down to the point that, you know, you feel like suicide is your only option. And I am a survivor of a suicide attempt.”
She pauses, her eyes filling up with tears.
“I just want people to know that that is not your only option – it is not. Although you may think it is, it is not. When I was hospitalized at Fort Stewart, that was like the best thing that could have happened to me, but the events that led up to that attempt – and having my stomach pumped and stuff – I just wanted to die. I just wanted it all to end. But looking back, I am so glad I am a survivor. I am not a victim.”
Through any adversity, there’s hope.
To others who have suffered similar abuse, she says, suicide “is not your only way out.”
“So ask for the help, report it, and do not be ashamed, because it is not your fault.”
In the 1990s, when Blockett was in the Army, reporting sexual harassment was “taboo” and a “career killer,” she says, but she did so anyway. After that, Blockett says it became a hostile work environment.
She is glad the military has made strides to stop abuse and help victims “become survivors,” but there is more work to be done.
Jen Goodbody, a Ride 2 Recovery program events coordinator, veteran and past participant, knows this well.
“We don’t know a lot of stories, because we try not to delve into that part,” she says of program participants over the years, “but it goes from rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, verbal (abuse) – it runs the gamut. You could pick it out and it’s happened, it’s happened.”
Goodbody hopes those who have experienced abuse don’t “stuff it away” out of fear of being seen as weak.
Leaders of Ride 2 Recovery, who help veterans through a number of different cycling programs, say that more service members are reporting abuse than ever before: “In 2013, an unprecedented 50 percent increase in victims choosing to report a crime was followed by even more choosing to report in 2014. In 2012, there were 1 in 10 victims, in 2013, 1 in 4 victims.”
The VA has been developing initiatives since 1992 to help identify survivors of military sexual trauma and ensure they have access to specialized care. All veterans seen by the VA are now asked if they have experienced this kind of trauma.
Now people are reporting it, and I appreciate that the leadership is making steps. You’re there to support, protect and lead your troops, not tear them down.
Around 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men have told their VA health care provider they experienced sexual trauma in the military.
It’s a “big issue” right now, Goodbody says. But because of the brave veterans who have stepped forward to tell their stories, she hopes the next generation “won’t have to deal with what we’ve done.”
“Being able to report it and bring it to the light – it erases the stigma once that happens,” Goodbody says. “The simple fact of talking about it is healing in itself, and it can help somebody else because we were all in this hole. This dark, dark hole where we feel like there is absolutely not anybody else in the world that understands what’s going on or who could possibly even think about it.
“And so, to be able to be in group like this, it shines just a little bit of light for hope that, you know, there are people who are out here that understand and who care about you.”
Blockett surely felt that support while cycling at Wonder Valley.
I’ve gained more self-confidence, more self-awareness that I am in control and I am not a victim of my circumstances. I am a survivor.
“It’s a no-judgment zone, so you don’t have to be as strong as the fastest rider as long as you just don’t stop pedaling … who would want to stop pedaling, you know? Because you finally found a platform that is for you and it is customized to your needs, so that makes it better and easier to be like, ‘OK, I can. I can.’
“The strong ones always come back and give you that: ‘You got this, you got this.’ There’s no ‘You are being left behind.’ ”