‘She Wore Those Boots’ confronts military sexual assault, on base and in the family

Gabriela Sanchez in the role of a soldier that has been sexually assaulted in the military in the play 'She Wore Those Boots' by Erlina Ortiz (Photo courtesy of Power Street Theater Company)

Gabriela Sanchez in the role of a soldier that has been sexually assaulted in the military in the play 'She Wore Those Boots' by Erlina Ortiz (Photo courtesy of Power Street Theater Company)

In a small theater at the edge of Northern Liberties, a play is taking on sexual assault in the military.

On stage a mother, her grown son and daughter, are torn apart by their devastating experiences in the army. The play traces the journey of this Puerto Rican family from despair to recovery and a measure of hope

“She Wore Those Boots” starts in a New Jersey beach town where a brother and sister are talking about her plans to follow him to boot camp.

She’s filled with pride at the sense of duty and adventure that led her to enlist. He promises to protect his little sister even if their mother objects to her decision.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The mother tells them in a mix of Spanish and English that’s it’s a crazy thing to do “You do not have my permission” she says, while her son argues that his sister has been trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

“I think it’s great,” he said to which his mother responds “this kind of stuff is not for young women!”

The spark for this play, says writer Erlina Ortiz, was relatively simple

“I have a cousin who went to the military I remember he was so fun loving and easy going when we were growing up and he came back from the military very different. So I became interested in exploring how the military affect people,” she said.

Ortiz decided to put herself in the shoes (hence the title) of an imaginary young Puerto Rican woman. She also researched the staggering statistics about sexual trauma in the military. For instance a recent VA survey found that one in four women experienced sexual harassment or assault while in the service. With the increase in population of women veterans the problem is bound to grow.

At one point in the play, the daughter called Judaica, played by Gabriela Sanchez, tries to tell her brother she had been raped. She explains that a group of her fellow soldiers had met at a bar on base . Feeling a bit dizzy and tired she was heading towards her dorm when a fellow soldier offered to accompany her. On the way she said, he offered to let her rest a bit in his room and then assaulted her.

He accuses her of provoking the situation and when she says she wants to report the assault , he turns from brother to sergeant and tells her to forget about it.

His reaction is all too common, said Camille Turner-Townsend, a Marine veteran and a member of the Warrior Writers collective, who was consulted to make sure the play is authentic. She asked that we not use her last name.  She says the play captures the feeling of isolation and alienation that come when rape accusations are dismissed.

The ending of the “She Wore Those Boots” works well because there is an apology and Judeica’s brother openly supports her when she wants to tell her story at a military meeting.

Turner-Townsend said  that “when you are struggling through this transitional phase and want your mind to be clear and for someone to come back in uniform that’s a service member, that’s a man and that’s strong and he says ‘I’m sorry.'”

“That has a meaning to it,” she said, “because they understand the residual impact of war and trauma … that was the turning point, because OK someone believed me.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal