By Dave Larsen
III Corps public affairs
When the keynote speaker for the Fort Hood Sexual Assault Awareness Month proclamation signing event was announced, polite applause followed her to the podium April 4 at the III Corps Headquarters.
The mood in the room changed, however, as Spc. Patricia Fuentes began her remarks.
"I'm the victim of a life-altering event. I was assaulted in 2007, on Feb. 14, by another service member while on a date with him," Fuentes, currently a soldier in Fort Hood's Warrior Transition Brigade, told about 100 people filling the West Atrium.
"So many people wanted to put a time on when I was supposed to get over it. But that's the problem," she said. "There is no time limit on a situation like this, especially when you don't get the help you need."
It took Fuentes many months of struggling before she sought help.
"It made me an angry person," she said. "I started alienating my friends. I couldn't deal with somebody touching me, not even in the slightest way."
Fortunately for her, Fuentes said she was able to reach out for help, starting within her unit and then with a victim's advocate with Fort Hood's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program. She said she was thankful for the support she received from caring professionals.
"They helped save my life," she said, "I am honored and proud to have served under III Corps and its subordinate units. Thank you to the most supportive command group I have had the honor to have served under."
Applause echoed through the atrium as Fuentes concluded her remarks. Her courage to stand in front of a packed room and tell of her personal tragedy moved many in the audience, including the III Corps commander, Lt. Gen. (promotable) Robert Cone. Her story brought to mind a tragedy in his own life.
"When I was a plebe at West Point, my sister was visiting friends in Boston, Mass., and was raped. She never recovered from that," Cone said. "She ended up taking her own life."
With tears rising in the corners of his eyes and his voice cracking with emotion, the general continued, "So, this is an emotional thing for me."
Overall, Cone said, the Army is a representation of America's best, and it has been successful in battling sexual assault "because we've come together as a team; teams of people who care about each another, who literally love one another and who put each other's lives on the line in the care of one another."
But he said there are the tragic exceptions.
"When we see something like sexual assault in our own ranks, it makes me sick," Cone said. "Put simply, there is no excuse for it."
When a sexual assault occurs, the general said, it's the command's responsibility to help survivors of these incidents.
"We have the responsibility to treat the survivors with dignity and respect," Cone stressed, adding that every soldier should do the same.
Cone said he continues his belief that soldiers are great Americans, "but this is a problem that has gone on too long, and we are going to redouble our efforts here at Fort Hood. It's a leadership issue," he said, while admitting that these assaults aren't happening in the workplace.
"It happens when soldiers are away from legitimate authority," Cone stressed before signing the proclamation. "We, as leaders, are intrusive enough in our soldiers' lives that we can, first of all, make sure that they know there's always a command presence, and to identify those kinds of people who would take advantage of their fellow soldiers."