Janelle Marina Mendez is a dynamic activist and passionate community leader based in the Hudson Valley area of New York State, proudly identifying as a disabled veteran of the United States Marine Corps. She manages her disability and has thrived in her career, currently working as a Vice President - Wealth Management Financial Advisor for CitiGroup Global Markets Inc., also known as Citi Personal Wealth Management. As Founder and CEO of the Military Sexual Trauma Movement, a national grassroots advocacy organization run by affected veterans with disabilities, Janelle’s activism is creating an impact. Her activism extends into local politics where she has run for office and remains civically engaged. She does all of this in her spare time away from her high powered career in finance.
According to Reuters, veterans who report MST are 70% more likely to commit suicide compared to a non-MST veteran. Tens of thousands of veterans have committed suicide as a result of Military Sexual Trauma.
Janelle Marina is one of the fortunate MST survivors who also survived her own suicide attempt: an intentional overdose. The pain of the sexual, physical, and psychological trauma was so intense that this young Marine who was only eighteen, began to believe that life wasn’t worth living, after the trauma of the brutal rape and hazing she endured, she narrowly survived. The pain of the flashbacks of what she endured on active duty was far too much for her to bear.
Her Chain of Command (CoC) taunted her with names like WOOK (woman outside the kitchen), Walking Mattress (WM), Hoe, and Slut; Janelle was ruthlessly violated by her superiors after a nude photo intended to for her boyfriend leaked and was shared with all of the Marines on base. Janelle was seventeen years old.
When Janelle Marina reported what happened to her, Janelle's superiors placed the blame on her and began a hazing so severe that she developed Chronic-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Over the course of 3 days she was choked, molested, harassed, spit on, had a metal chair thrown at her, was starved, and denied sleep. Upon request of legal and medical attention, she was denied these basic human rights and was locked in a room for 15 hours. In the aftermath of this harrowing trauma, she was informed by her chain of command that hazing and sexual abuse are part of the culture she signed up to experience as a female Marine.
Following these experiences, she was raped by a Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt) who was trying to avoid deployment with his unit. Janelle woke up unable to remember what occurred. She looked down at her clothes to see she was wearing a wife beater and boxers. She immediately went to her Sergeant (Sgt) who called NCIS. Janelle was sent to a naval hospital where she was given a rape kit which included a toxicology report, both of which came out positive. The findings determined she had five sleeping pills in her system and had been roofied. Upon returning to base, Janelle was arrested for underage drinking and sent to Norfolk Naval Brig, where her father hired a private attorney and the case was dismissed.
Women who report sexual assault are 12X more likely to receive a negative (retaliatory) outcome from reporting Military Sexual Trauma than the offender being held accountable.
She often asked herself, “How did I get here?” throughout the course of this woeful torment.
Janelle grew up in a working class suburb just outside of New York City where she was raised with her older brother and two younger sisters. Her parents both worked as civil servants, her mother a postal worker turned bus driver and her father a police officer. Even in a two parent home, Janelle’s childhood had its share of challenges. Her family struggled financially when her father was injured while responding to a domestic dispute and became physically disabled. The financial burden of the medical bills combined with the pressure on her mother to manage the whole of the family’s affairs tore the family apart. The ongoing stress led to her parents’ divorce , ultimately her mother losing custody of her due to child abuse. These experiences shaped Janelle’s worldview, even as a youth. She learned at an early age to fight for what is right and just in a world where she witnessed firsthand the unfair treatment of women. Janelle Marina made a promise to herself to one day be a part of the change she wanted to see in the world.
As a teenager, Janelle loved sports and did fairly well in her studies; she dreamt of attending university to become either a scientist or a politician. Unfortunately, due to her family's financial circumstances, this was a dream deferred for her. Janelle was attracted to the elite and powerful image of the United States Marine Corps, and considered her military enlistment to provide a way out of home life she so desperately wanted to escape from, knowing military service would provide her an opportunity to get an education she knew her parents could not afford.
Janelle’s torturous experience with Military Sexual Trauma proved to serve as her primary motivation to turn pain into power. The more she fought to survive and to actualize justice, the more she witnessed the systemic injustices that she fights to change today. Unfortunately, Janelle’s experience is not unique: there are countless service members, both men and women, who share this experience, but are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation.
62% of women who report MST report receiving a retaliatory outcome.
Upon her release from the military, Janelle Marina received a retaliatory discharge and found herself vulnerable, penniless and homeless. Barred from access to the VA’s healthcare, there was no one to help mentally or emotionally, drawing her survive by entering the sex and drug trades. She was repeatedly denied access to benefits. Her story led her to pursue justice and achieve her goal through the Movement's first major success, the passage of the No Bad Paper Bills which became law in New York State. These groundbreaking laws are the first in United States History to protect against both retaliation and discrimination. Janelle Marina's experience led to her core belief in intersectional justice. These laws protect veterans who experience MST, veterans with disabilities and LGBTQIA veterans. Her story is truly one of turning pain in to power.
According to HRW.org, 53% of homeless female veterans are victims of Military Sexual Trauma.
The tide began to turn in her favor when Janelle landed her first job in finance. Due to the discipline, high standards, and competitive skills Janelle developed in the U.S.M.C. combined with both her internal fortitude and deep desire for justice, Janelle was promoted multiple times in the financial services industry during the recession of 2008. Once stable and thriving in her career, she began to focus her efforts on pursuing her dreams by beginning to attend college and enter the political arena. During this time Janelle was struggling with substance abuse issues and began seeking out therapeutic treatment.
According to DAV.org when a veteran has a history of MST, they are 10X more likely to develop substance abuse/addiction issues.
In the process of becoming civically engaged, Janelle set her focus on finding ways to evolve into an impactful leader who could lend her powerful voice for women, veterans and service members everywhere who share her experience but are afraid to speak up. Through her courageous advocacy, Janelle began to find great healing in sharing her survival story, connecting with veterans in pursuit of their rights everywhere. Today, advocating for survivors of MST has become her calling, one in which she proudly fights for today.