‘Zero Tolerance’: A Marine’s Story of Suffering and Suppression

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

9 min read

Marine Toye and Service Dog Bake

Warning: The following piece may include recounts and discussion surrounding topics such as sexual assault, trauma, harassment and thoughts of self-harm.

Full names have been omitted for the sake of privacy.

After struggling through a hellish and scarring childhood in Piqua, Ohio, when Chief Officer 3 Toye enlisted in the United State Marine Corps at age 18, she was looking for an escape. A victim of continued sexual assault and harassment, Hickman would come to find the military was not the reprieve she intended.

“I thought I was running from what happened in my past, but I was running into the lion’s den.”

According to the Department of Defense, an estimated 20,000 service members are sexually assaulted annually, but only 7,816 service members reported those cases in 2020.

Toye would come to know this statistic all too well.

Growing Up Quickly

Starting at age five, Toye’s childhood was ridden with abuse and trauma, taken advantage of by a close male family member. She saw the dramatic emotional toll the events took on her mother, leading her to feign a memory block of the incidents.

“But I remembered everything,” Toye recounted.

The trauma tore her family apart, and she longed for a new life.

“I had decided in sixth grade that my only way out of the situation was to become a Marine,” Toye said. “That’s all I focused on.”

“I thought I was running from what happened in my past, but I was running into the lion’s den.”

Looking for an Escape

As a 17-year-old senior in high school, Toye was desperate to escape Piqua, so she found herself in a military recruiter’s office. She enthusiastically attended meetings and trainings before the age-technicalities allowed her to formally enlist.

“I’m a firm believer that predators can sense trauma — and my recruiter was one of those predators,” she said.

17-year-old Toye’s recruiter ended up taking advantage of her youth and eagerness to become a Marine: “He put me in a position where I felt like if I was not sexually active with him, he said I would not be a ‘good Marine.’ And if I weren’t a ‘good Marine,’ he wasn’t sure if I could enlist.”

 

Enlisting in the Marines

Right after turning 18 in January of 1991, Toye’s recruiter arranged a meeting for her and a military man who’d just returned from the Gulf War. The recruiter told her to be a ‘good girl.”

He meant sex.

She was made to go on another date with him, and there were two men after that.

“I felt like I just needed to do this now, and when I got to bootcamp it would be over. This is just what I needed to do,” Toye said.

She departed for bootcamp in Parris Island, South Carolina, the only training site for females at the time, and later began MOS school to train for her administrative military role, where she once more imagined things would be different — but again, she found herself under attack.

A man forced himself on her, not taking no for an answer.

“If I just say ‘yes,’ it’ll be over quicker,” Toye recounted the events. “I never felt that I could come forward.”

Marine Toye Hickman

Toye believed that upon her enlistment with the Marines, she was joining an elite membership that would foster camaraderie and honor, but — as a female in the minority — she uncovered a dark side as well. She was enrooted in a dominant, alpha-type hierarchal system where she felt as though she could not say no.

According to a Department of Defense report, in 2020, there were 6,290 reports of in-service sexual assault, an increase from the previous year. These findings are widely accepted to be underreported due to negative stigma, fear of retaliation, and a lack of conviction follow-through.

2020 Department of Defense Report

Only recently, after the disturbing murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen in Fort Hood, Texas, has change in policy stirred. Despite countless pleads for investigations into harassment incidents, Guillen was never taken seriously. Only now has the Pentagon laid out a new plan to address sexual assault and domestic violence in the military, removing the investigation of sexual assault and domestic violence from the chain of command, leaving it to independent prosecution.

The Trauma Continues

For Toye, only after committing to an admittedly self-preservative marriage in order to escape sexual assault, did the outright attacks taper off.

“When you tell someone you’re married, most predators will stop, because adultery is illegal in the military.”

Though the sexual assaults ceased, harassment carried on for Toye. Subtle jabs about her clothing and looks were constant. Once, during an important formal ceremony, a Sargent Major plucked her from the crew, calling her a “pretty little thing.”

“You have to continually think about what you’re going to say, what you’re going to do, what you’re going to wear — so no one will misinterpret your intentions. You can’t look too cute and trendy, but don’t look too conservative. It’s exhausting.”

Toye continued in the military, serving across the country in Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Hawaii, Japan, as well as a deployment to Afghanistan, where she returned home with combat-PTSD.

Marine Veteran Toye

Upon retirement in April of 2017, Toye’s life started to slow, but her triggers and PTSD symptoms only ramped up in intensity.

She landed in a short-lived civilian job that had her questioning her place, unable to relate or form relationships with coworkers, constantly concerned of others’ judgements and perceptions. Her friendships and relationships were unhealthy and unsustainable — codependent and lacking boundaries.

Toye’s former husband, Frank, recounted the feelings of helplessness during Toye’s dark moments.

“I think those of us close to her — me and the kids — felt that she didn’t want to be around us. She appeared depressed most times, and she spent a lot of time in bed. It was very frustrating for me and our relationship.”

Toye’s debilitating symptoms kept her from doing the activities she once enjoyed.

“I couldn’t go out at night. I would constantly think there were people beneath cars with razor blades. The thoughts in my head were always ‘Something horrible is going to happen, and you’re going to die.’”

Bogged down by complex-PTSD triggers and the suppressed trauma from sexual abuse, Toye fell into a suicidal spiral.

Bogged down by complex-PTSD triggers and the suppressed trauma from sexual abuse, Toye fell into a suicidal spiral.

Marine Veteran on mountain

Suicidal Spiral

Military sexual assault often leads to a variety of symptoms and disorders, including PTSD, depression and substance abuse. According to a 2018 VA Eastern Colorado study, female veterans with PTSD as a result of MST are three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those with combat-PTSD.

One afternoon, while waiting to order lunch at Panera Bread Co., Toye was overtaken by anxiety and adrenaline spikes when a man stepped a bit too close for comfort in line. While the stranger had no ill-intentions, every time she moved forward in the line, the man also inched that much closer. Her heartbeat quickened, and her trauma-ridden body had the sudden driving urge to punch the man, so severely distraught and triggered from his close proximity.

That was the breaking point for Toye. Something had to change.

K9s For Warriors

After some web searching on Service Dogs, she came across K9s For Warriors and applied online. Once accepted, she was placed on the ever-growing waiting list of veterans anticipating a Service Dog.

In the meantime, she enrolled in a residential trauma treatment program through the VA in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and her healing journey truly began in February of 2020.

After completing the residential program in June of 2020, Toye had roughly two months to prepare before making the two-and-a-half-hour drive down from Hilton Head, South Carolina, to the K9s For Warriors national headquarters to complete formal Service Dog training.

Fresh from her residential therapy program, Toye attempted to apply the coping strategies and mechanisms she’d been taught in order to fight the anxious unknowns and ingrained perfectionist tendencies leading up to her start date.  

“I just told myself, ‘I’m here for me and my Service Dog and to make myself feel better. Don’t worry if everybody likes you.’”

Before arrival, she didn’t know much about the dog waiting for her, but she’d been assured the Warrior Operations team at K9s For Warriors works diligently to pair veterans with dogs that will suit their personalities and lifestyle.

“One of my bucket list goals is to hike the Appalachian trail from start to finish in one season. They said they would give me a dog that would be able to do that,” Toye remembered. “When I met him, my heart melted — I ugly cried with snot.”

"When I met him, my heart melted — I ugly cried with snot."

 

For Toye and Bake, training had its ups and downs. After a lifetime of trauma, Toye uncovered an intense need to portray perfection in every aspect of her life.

“To me, if I was perfect, no one would know my trauma,” Toye said. “I remember a Warrior trainer telling me, ‘Bake is not going to be perfect 100 percent of the time. He’s a dog first and a Service Dog second, so you need to get that perfect image out of your head and replace it with how you’re actually going to work.’”

She discovered that not every veteran and Service Dog team functioned together the same, but they all worked for the individuals.

“If I didn’t have Bake, I wouldn’t be here. I would have ended it.”

Since returning home after graduating the three-week on-campus training program, the pair has gotten accustomed to a new normal.

“I now know what a good night’s sleep is after all these years,” Toye said.

Frank could immediately see the difference.

“He’s been a godsend,” he said. “I don’t think words can express how happy I am that she has not only been paired with a Service Dog, but her perfect match.”

Toye and Bake have traveled across the country, camping and hiking as they go. They’ve tackled bits of the Appalachian Trail in Damascus, Virginia, where Bake thoroughly enjoyed his very first snow. Bake has yet to learn the joy of being on the water, but Toye aims to get him on a paddle board or kayak in the upcoming year.

“I think everyone sees that I’m smiling more — I’m truly happy.”

Time to Speak Up

While Toye admits that every single day brings new challenges and struggles in her mental health journey — a Service Dog is not a cure-all — she’s seen an immense difference in her overall quality of life. She strives to use this newfound freedom to share her story with other struggling survivors.

“I want other veterans to get past the ‘just suck it up’ mindset,” Toye said. “On one hand, the Marine Corps saved me; on the other hand, the Marine Corps kept me from healing from childhood trauma, only exacerbating those experiences and learned beliefs. I spent most of my career like that, never addressing the trauma.”

She now encourages veterans to speak of their trauma so they can start the healing process.

“My entire life, I’ve felt like I needed to keep my trauma a secret, like it was dirty. It’s taken such a toll on my mental health that I was going to kill myself almost two years ago. It’s time to speak up.”

"My entire life, I've felt like I needed to keep my trauma a secret, like it was dirty. It's taken such a toll on my mental health that I was going to kill myself almost two years ago. It's time to speak up."

Veteran and Service Dog
K9FW_Bake_0001

Meet Bake

Bake was one of the very first dogs procured from Texas, home of the Petco Love K9 Center.

Toye & Bake’s Graduation Date
July 23, 2020

Bake’s Sponsor
Lowcountry Foundation for Wounded Military Heroes

Bake’s Name
Named by Steve Baker in honor of his brother Tom, a Marine Corps veteran who passed away in 2011

Bake’s Rescue Shelter
San Antonio Animal Control

If you are affected by sexual assault and need assistance, call the 24/7 Safe Helpline at 877-955-5247 or chat online at safehelpline.org

Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 to speak with a qualified responder 24/7.

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