MADISON, Wis. — Elizabeth Smart, who gained national recognition in 2002 during her nine-month abduction at the age of 14, spoke to service members and civilians at Joint Force Headquarters about her experience and sexual assault victim issues during a Sexual Assault Awareness Month presentation April 23.
“If you have been abused, take advantage of the services that are offered because these people do understand what you’re going through and they’re here to help and they want to help,” Smart said. “I know firsthand that having that support is so important, so instrumental in healing and in moving forward and helping you live the best life you can possibly live.”
Smart was 14 when Brian David Mitchell kidnapped her from her bed in Salt Lake City, Utah and brought her to a mountainside encampment on the outskirts of the city. Mitchell and Wanda Barzee told Smart she was now married to Mitchell, and Smart endured starvation, humiliation, threats to her life and other degradations in addition to sexual assault over the ensuing nine months of her captivity in Utah and in southern California.
“I felt devastated,” Smart recalled, recounting her ordeal haltingly at times, and at others still struggling to understand the motives and actions of her captors. “I felt destroyed, I felt ruined, I felt filthy. I felt like it would be better to be dead because if my parents knew what had happened how could they want me back? I felt that all my worth as a human being had just disappeared.”
Smart told her audience that victims of sexual violence do not have to bottle up their ordeal and they do not have to be ashamed of what happened.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “Abuse and rape and sexual violence is a choice made by someone else — it’s never the victim’s choice to be abused.”
Smart said she was impressed by how seriously the Wisconsin National Guard takes the issue of sexual assault.
“Hearing that the National Guard and other branches of the military take this seriously is so important to me,” she said. “No victim should feel like they’re not believed. No victim should feel like what’s happened to them makes them unworthy, makes them an outcast.”
Robert Brania, the Wisconsin National Guard’s sexual assault response coordinator, credited the organization’s leaders with supporting and promoting efforts to increase awareness of services and resources available to sexual assault victims.
“The leadership of the Wisconsin National Guard, at all levels, has not only been supportive of these initiatives, but in fact are the driving force behind the reason for their success,” Brania said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s senior enlisted leader, said that the Wisconsin National Guard’s sexual assault response services, such as victim advocates, are available to Guard members even if their assault happened off duty.
“Some of that is not when they’re in our control but when they go home, they go back to college,” Conde said. “How do we understand and communicate to them that we’re still here, even if it happened on the civilian side? That’s tough when you don’t see your Soldiers and Airmen every week.”
Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, said that the Army and Air Force, as well as civilian life, function within a set of values.
“One of our important values is to treat everybody with dignity and with respect,” Mathews said. “Sexual assault is a crime — we will not tolerate it in this organization. When somebody is convicted, we will hold them accountable. And we will do everything we can, in our power, to support the victim.”
Smart said there is nothing shameful in asking for help.
“If anything, I think it takes a greater deal of courage to come forward and to ask for help,” Smart said. “If you have these services available you should definitely take advantage of them.”