Local woman raped in military now helping sexual assault victims
YAKIMA, Wash. – “As your undergarments come off, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is the way it goes. Oh, ok,’” said Ruthanne Cortez.
Cortez recalls what she says was a miserable time serving in the army in the ‘70s. It was a time when she says she was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions by fellow soldiers. Feeling helpless, she tried to get help from someone higher up, but things didn’t turn out how she had hoped. She was raped.
“I thought, 'Ok, I’ll go and talk to somebody,' and then I did, and what I remember is them locking a door,” she said.
For decades, Cortez says she tried to keep this trauma a secret.
“I figured I must’ve done something wrong to deserve this. The bottom line is - I thought I could get some help from all these things that were happening, and then I went to somebody who was higher in my command, and that person took advantage of me, but I kept blaming myself for all these years,” said Cortez.
She says she found herself caught in a vicious cycle, and to save her life, she got out of the service after nearly two years. Cortez says at 61 years old, she’s only now starting to feel comfortable with confronting her past and sharing it with others.
“When I was raped, there was nobody around to help me. There was nobody around to listen to me,” she said.
Cortez says because of the isolation and guilt she felt, she’s made it her mission to be there for victims like herself. She volunteers with Comprehensive Health’s Aspen Program, where she’s an advocate for sexual assault survivors. She’s on-call through the night and provides support by going with victims to the hospital for their exams, and just hearing them out, validating their experience.
“Sometimes, these victims are completely lost with all this; and sometimes, you don’t even get two words in. They’re too busy saying things, being angry, and you’re there to listen to them,” said Cortez.
Kim Foley is the program manager at Aspen. She says they help around 500 victims with their free services each year in Yakima, but she knows there’s more out there who are afraid to come forward.
“A lot don’t tell anybody, and if they do come forward, they might go to the hospital or the doctor’s office to make sure they’re not pregnant or they didn’t contract any STDs. They may not reach out to help. They may not wanna report to the police department. Everybody responds differently,” said Foley.
She says it’s unfortunate that sexual assault has become so prevalent in our culture, but she thinks we’re capable of putting a stop to it.
“I think if we look at any sexual assault like any healthcare problem, it’s very preventable. I think we just need to focus on raising people that respect each other and valuing each other, not treating each other like a commodity that can be bought or used, and then thrown away,” said Foley.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, you can call their sexual assault victim’s hotline at (509) 452-9675.
They’re also always looking for volunteers.