By Ileen Kennedy
Utah National Guard
At 14, Elizabeth Smart was thrust into the world spotlight after being kidnapped in the middle of the night, followed by nine months suffering in captivity, with constant sexual assault, trauma, and abuse.
Almost two decades later, Smart discussed her own healing with members of the Utah National Guard on May 24, 2021. At the beginning of her kidnapping, Smart had thoughts that maybe it would be better if she was dead.
“I started thinking of children who had been kidnapped, that they were lucky because they were all dead. And maybe I would be better off dead,” said Smart. “Because how could I ever come back from something like this. How could I ever be accepted after something like this? Surely nobody would ever want me after this had happened.”
As her captors stripped everything from her, telling her she was no longer Elizabeth and not allowing her to speak about her family, friends, or life prior to her kidnapping, Smart started to realize that she was determined to never forget who she was or the things that were most important to her.
“I started thinking of everyone [who] was important and certainly my parents were at the top of that list,” said Smart. “I was just trying to memorize everything I could about my parents.”
Smart began to realize that she knew that God and her parents would always love her and nothing could ever change that. Knowing she had their love gave her strength to want to live to return to them.
“That was honestly the most important realization I could have made because I had something that my captors could not take away from me,” said Smart. “It didn’t matter that I had been kidnapped, or raped, or chained up. They [My captors] could not take away the fact that my parents would always love me and would always want me back. When I realized I had something worth living for, I knew I had something worth surviving for. I was able to make the very most important decision I could during my captivity which was, I was going to do whatever it took to survive. It didn’t matter what it was, if it meant that I would survive, I would do it. Because going back home to my parents, being loved again would be worth it.”
After being rescued, Smart attributes her mom as giving her the best piece of advice for her to move forward in life. She first told her that what her captors had done to her was terrible, wicked, and evil. They had stolen nine months of her life that she could never get back.
“My mom gave me the best piece of advice I had ever been given,” said Smart. “She said, Elizabeth, the best punishment you could ever give them is to be happy and move forward with your life and hold on to all the good things that life has to offer. Because, by feeling sorry for yourself, holding onto the past and reliving it, that’s only allowing them to steal more of your life away from you.”
Smart felt compelled to point out that she received support and attention that many victims do not have. While she was assaulted by strangers, many people face victimization from someone they love and trust. She encouraged survivors to find support where they need to find it, and rebuild family through friends and loved ones they trust.
“I know that the number one thing that helps survivors move forward is to have support, to have someone there to listen without being questioned, without being made to think, I must have done something wrong, otherwise why did this happen to me. I’m here to say that it is never the victim's fault. As a community, we should never put that on the victim, we should be here to support them, we should be here to help them move forward and to receive the best chance at life that they can possibly get.”
Maj. Gen. Michael Turley, the adjutant general, echoed her sentiment with two important aspects needing to be addressed in the military as a whole.
“We continue in the military to have problems with sexual harassment and sexual assault, some of that is the fact that we have cultural problems within our organization,” said Turley. “There could be some stoicism to problems where we look at people who have suffered something and try to basically tell them to, quote, unquote, suck it up, and move out. This is the wrong approach when we are talking about this level of trauma. We need to start taking a stance of understanding our own cultural blind spots, and we need to understand how to protect victims in our own organization. I think that’s something that Elizabeth can speak to us about.”
“I think that Elizabeth can also help us to understand how to be resilient. Think about this from the perspective of the trauma that she went through for nine months, and then to come out at the other end, to grow up to become a productive person, to have meaningful relationships, to have a family, and to go on and not be destroyed by this, obviously she has learned some level of capability and resiliency that we could learn from.”
Changing cultural and traditional mindsets can be difficult and challenging but it can also be constructive and broadening for both individuals and organizations.
“I think the first thing to do is let’s start changing the culture, it was said earlier by General Turley that there needs to be a culture change,” said Smart. “And it’s not being tough and strong to keep it inside you and let it destroy you from the inside out, so there needs to be a culture shift, there needs to be education and understanding that comes with it, and there needs to be this mentality change. This goes for everyone in the world, we need to start being more compassionate people because we all have crap, we all have hard things.”
Smart explained the perception that false reporting occurs frequently is often associated with cultural traditions. Doubting a victim’s story can stem from knowing an accused personally or serving with them.
“The amount of false reporting is so low nobody wants to go through the process of a false report because it is emotional hell. It is too hard to do that, and if it is false it will fall apart very quickly,” said Smart. “It is always 100 percent better to be compassionate, to be kind and supportive than to immediately jump down their throat and say well, I don’t believe you. That’s not true. I know that person and they never would do that. The truth is that the majority of kidnappers, the majority of abusers, and the majority of rapists are people that we know.”
“I will just tell you basically from the chair that I sit in now,” said Turley, “we’ve had people come to us and say this is what’s occurred. I have yet to run into one that turned out to be false. Now there are varying levels of culpability and varying levels of guilt.”
Smart emphasized her message of how important it is to believe the person reporting. Through her years of speaking and advocating all over the world, she has heard one feeling surface from all the victims, survivors, and people she has spoken with.
“The number one comment that I get is that nobody believes me and where can I turn,” said Smart. “So we made our ‘We Believe You’ campaign. The first thing any person can do to support victims is to believe them. I think especially considering this is the National Guard, to have commanders [who] believe survivors is going to make your unit stronger as a whole. You are going to become unified, you are going to become a better place to work for. How can you be there for each other if you are doubting each other? How can you be there for each other if you don’t trust or support each other? So having supporting commanders and colleagues is essential to becoming a stronger unit. And a safer place to work. It can only help.”
Smart was invited to speak to the Utah National Guard to share her story and to discuss the damage caused by victim-blaming and re-victimizing sexual assault and sexual harassment survivors, as well as the importance of fostering an environment where everyone is treated with compassion, dignity and respect.
“She is an advocate with her foundation and I thought she would be well received and respected with the military,” said Maj. Monica Leger, deputy inspector general and member of Task Force Dignity and Respect. “Whether there is a survivor in the audience who needs to hear about her story, her overcoming, her becoming an advocate. Her big focus is ‘We Believe You’, and helping those that hear these stories, whether they are in command, whether they are just a friend in the unit, to believe those people that do come forward.”
Smart now heads her foundation — the Elizabeth Smart Foundation — dedicated to support and education. She offers support and advice for those who have suffered a sexual assault and those trying to help others recover.
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