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Guest Opinion: #MeTucson

Surviving war and toxic masculinity in the Old Pueblo

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From the time I laid eyes on the Santa Catalina Mountains to sitting alone, quietly among towering saguaros, I fell in love with Tucson. As an Iraq War veteran, I found a sense of peace and belonging in this magical desert that I hadn't found anywhere else in my post-war homecoming. However, it wasn't until I stood face-to-face with a raging Pima County sheriff's deputy after a domestic violence call for help in 2011 that I realized my enamored relationship with the Old Pueblo was in serious trouble.

A frantic call came to me last summer from a fellow woman veteran I served with in Iraq in 2005. It was regarding helping a woman veteran I had never met who was fleeing a violent relationship. Hearing how "Jane" was virtually ignored by police, domestic violence organizations, and veteran service organizations in Southern Arizona opened a Pandora's Box of memories I had longed to leave behind when I left Tucson for Las Vegas in early 2012.

My relationship with "E" was an unexpected one. Friends since we met in Iraq and reconnecting in Tucson led to a series of late-night chats that led to moving in together. Once we shared the same living space, the facade began to crumble. He became aggressive toward me, initially in words, and when I found out I was pregnant, he laughed aloud thinking I had nowhere else to go. He believed I was trapped, and as someone who's been independent since 17, I knew he was wrong. Yet I was terrified that I had been deceived by someone I had entrusted sharing my vulnerabilities with had now viewed my lack of support in this city to keep me under his thumb.

After a verbal spat one evening, I demanded that he leave. There wasn't anything I wanted more than to pack up everything I owned and book it out of the house we shared with two other males we called friends. When he refused, the two other male friends stood silent as he attempted to slam a door on me. I caught it with my forearm, and felt a sense of indignation I had never quite felt before as I held my first trimester belly and screamed for him to get out. He laughed in my face before I sprinted to my room and dialed 911.

The first officer who arrived was a middle-age Hispanic male who looked not much taller than I at 5-foot-3. He asked why I had called. He was belligerent before I had the chance to say anything, breathing heavily as I relayed my story. I explained the situation, in which he countered immediately, stating "Well, I can walk in there and get his side and you'd be nothing but a lying bitch, wouldn't you?!" His spittle falling onto my face reminded me that "E" wasn't the only male on premises that I had to worry about possibly murdering me in a fit of rage.

The officer stormed inside the house as his partner stayed with me outside. The second officer was fortunately professional in his demeanor, asking about my plans for other places to sleep, friends or family I could trust and call for help. I didn't have anyone like that here.

An audible scuffle took place inside and officer No. 2 pardoned himself to lend a hand to the sexist, rooster cop inside the house. In the end, two officers ordered "E" to leave and one of our complicit roommates followed him, glaring at me as though interrupting their gaming night was the worst possible thing I could've done. This roommate's employer? University of Arizona.

Having a domestic violence (DV) organization contact card handed to me that night, I called the next day at work and asked what could be done about the belligerent officer, about a temporary place to stay, and what would be the best next steps to address my new situation as a single, pregnant combat veteran with no real ties in Tucson. The DV contact over the phone acknowledged that "this sort of thing happens all the time," and that officers have done this before. Sure, I could report it, but the department would just do an internal investigation and clear the suspected officer of any wrongdoing. "So, you're saying this is just another hopeless case? That even reporting the officer or my ex would just be a formality?" I asked. Pretty much. She might as well hav played "Que será, será" over the phone to reflect the same insulting, complicit tone. Other DV organizations I had called and emailed had essentially echoed this first contact's sentiments of "this is how it is here."

The other roommate, a local firefighter, had been cordial with police that night, yet did nothing to stop "E" in the process of the fight. His own personal firearm was stolen soon after. Knowing it was "E," he allegedly reported the theft, but not the suspect. According to the firefighter's girlfriend, he didn't want to damage their friendship by telling the whole story. He also gave "E" access to my artwork the day after the incident—while I was at work calling around for assistance and coordinating the U-Haul van—which he took out to the desert and demolished to "teach me a lesson." I lost at least $7,000 of original paintings in one day.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 62 percent of women who were murdered by intimate partners in Arizona were shot to death, and the rate of intimate partner homicides in Arizona is 45 percent higher than the national average. Additionally, mass shooters in general tend to have a history of domestic violence and misogyny, which is still largely left unaddressed. In the same year Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot, my ex was allowed to steal a firearm and get away with assaulting me.

After I filed an Order of Protection, I got to witness "E" throw a tantrum in front of the judge in Pima County Courthouse after being told to stay away from me. On the same day, he filed an order against me, stating that I shouldn't be allowed to carry firearms as I was reportedly "violent, and killed people in Iraq." They gave him the counter order, and a constable showed up at my work and screamed at me in front of my patients in an outpatient mental health treatment program.

My patients were more startled at the constable's display of unwarranted rage against me than they were for their own safety as they watched the middle-aged white female put her hand on her weapon as she addressed me. I felt absolutely demoralized—for both myself and my patients. The only time as a woman combat veteran of the Iraq War that I've been recognized in this town was when it was used against me and to strip me of my right to defend myself. I didn't own or possess any firearms at the time, and it was "E" who had a stolen 9mm handgun. Law enforcement did absolutely nothing about it, except respond to his fabricated stories to continue to harass and threaten me at work.

From the local justice system and law enforcement to DV prevention agencies and local institutions, no entity in Tucson had any real hand in preventing violence or providing a safe space in the aftermath. In fact, all had proven to be complicit in upholding a culture of misogyny that allows for domestic violence and femicide to protect fragile male egos and Pima County's famously rampant nepotism.

With the recent expiration of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a significant source of federal funding for DV agencies throughout the United States, critical DV programs in Tucson should take this time to regroup and implement proactive crisis response for women in need. Women veterans in particular are not only an underserved population, but we're seeing an alarming trend in rising suicide rates, homelessness, and lack of adequate care from VA healthcare. As a woman combat veteran Indigenous to the Mariana Islands, falling through the cracks after a botched domestic violence response made for an unforgettably isolating and traumatic experience.

To the credit of the real heroes of this story, the ones who helped me escape the Old Pueblo in the end were women. Other women listened to me. Believed me. Women veterans and DV survivors helped me pack up my life and put the pieces back together after I left.

There still isn't any form of assistance for women veterans facing domestic violence, and the same organizations that failed me are still the main points of contact. As for "Jane," due to the lack of crisis response in her own DV incident, her friends in her home state in the Midwest and other women veterans pooled money to fund her transportation out of Arizona.

Allow me to paraphrase to highlight the gravity of the situation: We had to use a fundraising platform to keep a fellow woman veteran alive and extract her safely from a violent home life in Southern Arizona because domestic violence crisis response failed her, too.

When Tucson decides to address toxic masculinity and build networks that directly help DV survivors in crisis in real time, perhaps city-wide domestic violence prevention can transcend lip service and provide safe spaces for women to exist in the span of this once-beloved Sonoran Desert town.

In the meantime, knowing that not much has changed in seven years as evidenced by "Jane's" story back to mine, Tucson still appears to be a place that's both dangerous and hostile for women—but even more so for women veterans.

MB Dallocchio is an author, artist, Iraq war veteran and social worker based in Los Angeles. Her recent memoir, The Desert Warrior, chronicles her post-war homecoming from Iraq to Arizona.

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