Star's Story

I graduated from high school in 1961. I had no immediate job training and no way to go on to college. It was suggested to me that I go into the armed forces and the Marines snatched me right up. I was so excited. Women weren’t given very many opportunities in those days, so we all worked in offices as secretaries, office assistants and the like. It was my dream, however, to become a lifeguard. I swam 5 miles a day as well as working in the office and I made it – I became a lifeguard. I was there to save lives.

In those days there was a great deal of social unrest. I came from a very white community but I was never a person who held onto any racial prejudice, so I was quite content with my bunkmates who were mostly black and Hispanic women and I thought I had made some very good friends.

One night all of us girls were out together at the enlisted men’s club and I was having a great time. We were engaged in deep conversation, focusing on how we were going to save the world. A black man with a gold tooth came up to me and asked me to dance and I politely said, “No thank you, I’m just really busy here right now”, and that was that. Or so I thought. After we left the club we went off base and partied some more and then returned home and went to bed.

The next morning I was the first person to be on duty at the water and when I got there I looked down and there was a dead man in my swimming pool. I had never seen a dead person before and I freaked out. I called for the other lifeguards and from there the military police were called and then there he was. I knew it the minute they pulled him out of the water and turned him over. It was the man with the gold tooth. His name was Otis, I later learned. Otis. It was traumatic.

The following Monday I went to work and the MP’s called me in and asked if they could interview me. I have known these people for some time and I don’t have any problem with this, so I said, “Sure.” Well, they took me to the Little Room with the Bright Lights – just like you see on TV – and there I was, with all these people I have known for three years, sitting around indifferently and asking me if I want an attorney. I said, “Why would I want an attorney?” They asked me what I had done the night before and I told them the truth. They then told me that they thought I had killed him. I could not believe that these people were saying this to me. ME! I was in complete shock. I save lives, I don’t TAKE them, damnit! They told me that they had “witnesses” who said they overheard me ask him if he would like to come for a “midnight swim” with me and heard him tell me that “he couldn’t swim” and that we purportedly left the club together. You could have knocked me over with a feather. All I said was, “Noooo, I didn’t have that conversation, nor did I ever see him again until I found him in the pool.” They kept insisting that they had these girls’ statements. Apparently these were Texas Reservists who had come on the base for that weekend and by the time I was in this interview they were long gone. “ I’m a life SAVER! You guys are my friends! I love everybody! Everybody is my friend! How could you think I could do such a thing?” I was 20 and very naïve. Very naïve. I kept going with the interview because I simply could not grasp what was really happening: I was being accused of murder.

The next day I told my Commanding Officer what happened and she could not have cared less and would have burned me at the stake right then and right there if she could have. But my Captain cared. I went to him and he was shocked; he knew I could never have done anything like that. That same day I started receiving death threats. Serious death threats. I was escorted from my barracks to and from work. It was horrible. I could barely function. Within a week I would wind up in Camp Pendleton with a nervous breakdown. Nobody knew what was going on with me. Nobody seemed to be able to help me or to even care. Except for Captain Elliot. He would take me home on the weekends. I spent those weekends with his wife and three children. It was my only sanctuary from what was happening on the base.

Eventually they hired a Full Bird Colonel to defend me. He found out what had happened to Otis and had my case thrown out in a flash. Apparently Otis had been hit over the head and thrown in the pool (after being hauled over a six foot fence). The “witnesses” were nowhere to be found and I was free.

But I wasn’t free by any stretch. I only had a few months to go and had intended to re-enlist. I had been so happy there; I was going to be a “Lifer”. But then I hated it. It wasn’t resolved for me by any stretch. Who could I tell? Seriously? Back then? I couldn’t tell anyone. God bless my captain. He got me honorably discharged early and in the interim spent numerous nights with me at his family dinner table telling me what I had done right in my life and giving me kudos for who I was. He helped me see my strength.

I am sure that if I didn’t have him at that point, I would have killed myself. I thought about it, but frankly, I didn’t know how. They didn’t give guns to women in the military back then, and I had no pills to take and no bridge to jump off of. They were fleeting thoughts, but they were enough. I had nowhere to turn; no one to talk to. My mother told me it wasn’t a good time for me to come home since she was with a new boyfriend. My Uncle wanted to help me but didn’t have the means. But Captain Elliot and his family were there. Night after night; telling me how much they cared about me.

My case was dismissed and so was I. The great Military which I had loved and which I was ready to pledge my life to, had betrayed me and deserted me. Essentially I was falsely accused of murder and then given the “oh, just kidding” speech.

I returned to Santa Rosa and started to get my life back together. I never thought about suicide again but those moments are so dark, so hopeless. I know those moments. But I learned a lot. You know, it’s funny – in retrospect it was just a detail of my life. It felt like my whole life at the time, mind you, but it really was only a detail.

I think that is what I would like people who are in those dark moments to think about. If you just give it another day. Talk about it out loud to someone – talk. Don’t just let it all run around in your mind, unspoken. Talk out loud. Then give it yet another day. Then maybe another. Eventually it becomes farther away and smaller. And one day you will look back through all the memories of your happy life and see that it was, in hindsight, only a detail.

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