Content Warning: Points of Light is proud to share the following uplifting and inspiring story. However, we acknowledge that a small portion below may be difficult for some readers. We encourage you to please care for your own wellbeing above all.
Jeanine McNeill is a veteran and a mom of two. She is a grandmother and a peer support specialist in the Mental Health Department at the VA. She is also a survivor of military sexual trauma (MST). It is this final point that changed the direction of her life. It threw her into a dark place and left her with MST-PTSD, but it also made her into the strong, kind, empathetic person who helps other survivors get their lives back with The Pink Berets. Today, her nickname is “Sunshine.”
We spoke to her after a recent retreat during which she ran into a military friend she hadn’t seen since 1985. When it came time for survivors to carry a cinderblock as a symbol for their burdens that would be taken from them by another participant, Jeanine was planning to sit it out because she had done it before. But her friend insisted. Her friend had knocked on the door that horrific, life-altering day, not knowing until later that Jeanine was being attacked on the other side. It was a powerful moment when she took the cinderblock from Jeanine, telling her that she would help her carry her burden now, because she wasn’t there to help when it happened.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I needed to give back. I feel I have so much life experience, there was just something I needed to do with it, or else I was going to be stuck in a negative mode. Life was very hard to even have a desire to live, to be honest.
Through my processes and my healing journey, I realized that I just wanted to help others overcome and find purpose for their life, because I know what it felt like not to have that.
Describe your volunteer role with The Pink Berets.
I work with survivors of MST as the Western Regional Director and Director of Ambassadorships. I implement and assist with different programs to help expand the reach of the group. And as an ambassador, I try to reach as many female veterans and first responders as possible to inform them of how we can be of service. I also bring on other survivors who are proud to be the face of the group.
There aren’t a lot of special programs for MST survivors, but the Pink Berets specialize in getting them started on a healing journey. We also advocate for women and their families. We go to D.C. to get bills passed for change in the military.
Have you found that there are unique challenges when someone goes through this experience in the military versus civilian life?
Yes. When this happens to someone in the military, it doesn’t get reported, because the perpetrator it is often an NCO (non-commissioned officer. They’re authority, and when you’re a private, you’re afraid of them. You’re afraid to say anything.
The military still has the good-old-boys mentality. They protect them. We are not protected. There have been numerous cases where women who have reported assault have been murdered. Women have been discharged on things like mental issues, or people find ways to make it miserable for them. There is retaliation. That has to end.
What kinds of changes are you working toward?
We’ve helped fight for better ways report issues, for one. The whole department of defense now requires SHARP teams — sexual assault teams — on post now, so that if someone is victimized, they have a team they can go to instead of their commanding officer. We’re fighting for it not handled by the military at all. We have civilian lawyers now, because it’s a chargeable offense. I could actually go in and bring my perpetrator to justice, if I chose to do that.
It’s working, but it’s a very slow process. Once, when I was tired of being harassed, I went down to my first sergeant, and I put a picture on his desk that an NCO left on mine. The NCO was moved out of our battalion without consequences. They used to do that, protect their own and devalue women. They still do, even though we’re able to go to war and fly jets now. The rate of MST is still going up.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
It’s knowing that I am making a difference. I’m making people believe that they can live a quality life. They have to do the work, but they know they’re never alone. It takes a team to heal. That’s how we do it; we do it as a team.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I am worthy. For a while, I didn’t think I was worthy of living, because of everything that had happened and how my life had turned out. I just didn’t think I was worthy of being happy. Now, I know I do have worth and I do have purpose. This is my purpose.
I’ve learned that when you do things that come from the heart, you are going to get everything that you deserve. My life has unfolded beautifully, and in all actuality, it makes me nervous. I keep waiting for a shoe to drop. It’s hard to get out of a certain mentality when you’ve had so many things happen that it breaks you.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I’m very proud of my story, and I’m very proud of being a veteran. And there is absolutely nothing you can’t do when you’re determined to put the past behind and redesign your life. It took a couple of years for me to get to that point, but The Pink Berets gave me tools to be able to do that. It’s a life-changing organization, and I’m very proud to be part of it.
I’m very honored and blessed to be doing something so beautiful with my life. I now know why I was given the life I was, and that’s because my purpose is to help others. So that’s what I’m doing.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Jeanine? Find local volunteer opportunities.
If you or someone you know has experienced the trauma of sexual assault or rape, you can support them by listening, letting them know you believe them and offering to help them find medical attention or mental health support. Contact RAINN to find help near you or call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk to a trained crisis counselor. These services are free and confidential.