Two days after his 17th birthday, Paul Schinker joined the U.S. Marine Corps, yearning for deployment as far away from his abusive and dysfunctional small-town Montana childhood home as possible.
He saw joining the Marine Corps in the mid-1970s as an opportunity to develop his identity as a man. While in boot camp he became squad leader and graduated in the top five of his 200-member group. He was stationed to Okinawa, more than 6,300 miles from home.
The once-wayward teen had everything he longed for: discipline, direction and distance. He earned the nickname "Smiley."
He would later wonder if he was "too jolly," and further questions whether his "gay" demeanor made him the target of a gang rape less than two weeks after landing in Okinawa.
As the 6-foot, 2-inch, 180-pound Schinker stepped out of the men's communal shower, about a dozen fellow Marines jumped him. The Marines, all in their 20s, pinned his arms and legs to the wet, cold floor and used the hose of a water-filled fire extinguisher to rape him.
All these years later, Schinker still breaks into quiet sobs as he relates the details. His wife, Jennie, reaches for his hand and there is a long silence.
"I died that day," he said. "I died that day. ... I was so scared. I can still remember how wet the floor was ... Of course they all just walked off laughing. I can give you more detail but that's enough."
His band of brothers had betrayed him.
"Here I am, I've got the world by the tail," he said. "I'm in the United States Marine Corps. I'm in a group of elite people. I'm in a brotherhood. This is a big family. We're all there to protect and watch out for each other. This is what it's about."
He bought a bottle of whiskey and an assortment of drugs, "uppers, downers, blues and reds," hoping to overdose. It did not work.
"I had a weapon," he said. "I put it to my head. I couldn't pull the trigger. So, I tried to OD but that didn't work either."
He confided to a sergeant who took him to the infirmary. He was put in the psych ward for eight days and taken by medical helicopter to Bremerton, Wash., where he spent more time in a psych ward before being shipped back to Okinawa to a different company. Still, his ordeal had become common knowledge.
Everyone, he said, knew he had returned from the "shrink factory." He was stigmatized as a homosexual and a "little funny."
"When you go back and still deal with the same people ... nobody believes you," he said. "You're a lyin' sumbitch. It's a traumatic experience."
His efforts to assimilate back into life on the base proved challenging. Dates, details and chronology are fuzzy, but one day he suspected that some of his "brotherhood" were after him and would again rape him.
"I'm fearing for my life," he said.
Schinker began running, jumped a fence and fell into the bushes where a Habu snake, a venomous pit viper, sunk a single fang into his arm. Traumatized, he flagged a passing motorist who drove him to the infirmary. Both his arms and fingers were swollen, but hospital personnel didn't believe him, he said. A 13-inch scar on his right forearm serves as a constant reminder of that day, that horror.
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"I wanted out of the Corps," he said. "Get me the hell out of here."
Within a month, he left the Marine Corps about three months early with an honorable discharge.
Schinker, now 54 and living in Billings, suppressed the memories of the rape for more than three decades. No one knew what happened, not even his wife of 17 years, Jennie, 53. That might still be the case if his former employer, a coal mining company, had not remodeled the facility and installed a locker room and communal shower where the crew could clean up.
Schinker was working as a foreman, earning about $65,000 a year, when flashbacks triggered anxiety attacks on the job.
"I started to think about my safety," he said. "I thought I should bring a gun. It scared the holy heck out of me. I'm thinking I'm back in Okinawa. I'm thinking they're going to hurt me. I wanted to destroy them before they could destroy me."
He went to the Vet Center in Billings where he asked for help. That's where he met Natasha Houston, a licensed clinical social worker who is certified in military sexual trauma, MST.
"He was suicidal, frantic," Houston said, speaking with Schinker's permission. "He was struggling with basic needs."
Schinker was trying to make himself into something new and different, she said. "I've seen his military records. He was a perfect soldier. I think his fellow Marines were jealous of him."
He took time off work under the Family Medical Leave Act and, leaving his wife behind, traveled 2,300 miles to Bay Pines, Fla., to seek treatment in an acute psychiatric unit that specializes in MST. He was admitted from March through May 2011 and treated for both military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. It cost him $1,500 out of pocket for travel expenses.
"It was a tough, tough decision to go," he said.
"I thought it was important for him to go," Jennie said. "It was a hard thing for us to manage but it was important."
Both lamented the fact that Fort Harrison is not in a position to house veterans who need acute psychiatric care.
"It would have meant a whole different life for me if I could have gone to Fort Harrison," he said. "Jennie should have taken part in spousal support classes, she could have come to visit me and it would have saved me money."
Schinker, who said he is now disabled and unemployed, readily acknowledges that he is not "cured." He suffers from panic attacks about twice a week and relies on a pair of medications and medical marijuana for emotional stability. Other than an occasional trip to the grocery store, he has little to no social life. He keeps primarily to his house where life revolves around his easy chair and television.
"Getting to church is a trial," he said.
Until recently, Schinker said he has never discussed what happened to him. And the telling has been painful.
"I broke down," he said the day after relating his story to The Gazette. "The misery that was coming from my heart and soul dropped me to my knees."