ORLANDO, Fla. — According to Veterans Affairs, 17 veterans die by suicide in the United States every day, and in the most recent data, 35 veterans right here in Maine took their own lives in 2019.
Most of us assume this comes from post-traumatic stress disorder related to combat stressors, but some veterans are suffering through a different kind of trauma, known to experts as Military Sexual Trauma or MST.
One in four female veterans and one in 100 male veterans report being affected by MST. Including a woman from Bangor, whose trauma drove her to the point of suicide.
Stacie Hardy was born and raised in Bangor. She enlisted in the Navy shortly after high school and was part of one of the first co-ed boot camp companies in the early '90s.
She quickly rose to a leadership role after joining the Navy, but she wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
"I’m sure they do it in all branches of service but in the Navy, it’s called 'one five day,'" she explained.
Hardy added it is a day during boot camp where other company commanders come in to "break the cadets down to build them back up" together.
"So that you become a cohesive unit and work together," Hardy said.
For most people that means jumping jacks, sit-ups, cleaning, and doing whatever the commanders say.
But for Stacie? It was more than that.
Three commanders brought her into the showers and told her, that she "needed to earn the right."
"That was the phrase they kept saying," she said. "That I needed to earn the right to be able to tell the men in your company to do anything."
In order to earn that right, she said they wanted her to clean the showers.
"They decided to make me into a mop, to clean those showers," she said recalling an event from 30 years ago. "So they went to the closet and they got the mops and they inserted them into my body."
She added that they moved her around, using her to mop the floor.
"I was sodomized. I was raped. I was degraded. While they laughed. And laughed," she said, fighting back tears.
She said she tried to report this to a military nurse the next day. She said that nurse told her to either report it and risk being dishonorably discharged or to keep quiet.
"That was a female nurse in the Navy who told me to carry on and do my job," Hardy said.
Close to three decades and a military career later, Hardy was still carrying this sexual trauma in physical and emotional wounds.
She eventually retired and returned to Maine, but the trauma never left.
Five years ago everything changed.
"It’s almost like a switch turned in my brain that went from rational thought to non-rational thought," she said. "I had just received my prescription of Ambien in the mail, and it was a 90-day supply, and I remember thinking what if this is not enough."
So she researched and made a plan to take her life.
At that moment her brother, who knew something was wrong, was working with the police to ping her car and eventually found her.
"They broke the door down and got me to the hospital, where I woke up in the ICU four or five days later," Hardy said.
She added that she remembers being furious.
"I felt like I had failed to kill myself properly," she said, crying.
Sadly, many veterans suffering from trauma don’t have a loved one who stops their suicide attempt.
"I would say the only consistent baseline that we see is PTSD in some form … whether it be from MST, whether it be from combat," Doc Goodwin, founder of the Maine Veterans Project, said.
He got a chance to work with Hardy when she participated in the Windy Warrior Adrenaline Therapy Program and went skydiving with MVP.
Goodwin explained he was kind of nervous after Hardy landed, because she didn't say much or give much feedback, and he wasn't sure she enjoyed herself. About a half-hour later, he got the reassurance he needed.
"We received a text message from her that says, ‘Woohoo I feel amazing,' and that’s when we realized something special may have happened," Goodwin said.
Goodwin doesn’t always know the extent of the trauma veterans are suffering when they come to MVP, but his MVP team works to help the whole veteran regardless, through things like recreation programs, home improvement projects, and heating fuel assistance.
As for Hardy, she is still working every day to remind herself she’s worth it.
She says she misses Maine, but she always wanted to live in Florida after visiting a friend here.
"That best friend lives exactly, driveway to driveway, 3 miles," she said.
With her new husband Craig, she is living her best life in the heat of the sunshine state. Because, as she said, you don’t have to shovel sunshine.
Even after everything that has happened to her, Stacie is still proud of her military service and hopes sharing her story might help others feel less alone.
Let's talk about it
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are resources right here in Maine that can help navigate through those thoughts and find a path to hope.
Maine Crisis Hotline: 1-888-568-1112
Maine teen text support
This peer support text line is for Maine youth 13 to 24 years old and is staffed by individuals 18 to 24. Talk about your feelings and get support from another young person. Daily from noon to 10 p.m. EST at 207-515-8398