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'I fight for the underdog': Retired San Antonio colonel brings military sexual trauma into the light

Retired Air Force Col. Lisa Carrington Firmin showcases her new book at UTSA, where she founded the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs.
Carson Frame / Texas Public Radio
Retired Air Force Col. Lisa Carrington Firmin showcases her new book at UTSA, where she founded the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs.

Bronze Star-decorated combat commander Colonel Lisa Carrington Firmin was the highest-ranking Latina in the Air Force when she retired in 2010. The San Antonio veteran has just released a book that describes the sexual harassment and assault she and others faced while serving.

Stories from the Front: Pain, Betrayal, and Resilience on the MST Battlefield” outlines Firmin’s own experiences with military sexual trauma, racial and gender discrimination during her 30-year career. It also includes the narratives of more than a dozen other service members, from Vietnam to the present.

TPR’s Carson Frame caught up with the author at a book signing and group conversation at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Carson Frame: Tell me about what led you to write this book mid-pandemic, following the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood. Paint a picture for me of where you were in your mind.

Lisa Carrington Firmin: Right. Yeah, it was an interesting time for me. You know, because during the pandemic, we were all kind of hunkered down. This is when it first started in 2020. And I guess I really allowed myself to really think and reflect on my past… I really compartmentalized quite well in the military. I would focus on the mission at hand and learning my job and that kind of thing. So when I first came into the service, I was sexually assaulted in initial training. But I buried it just so that I could get out of the training and graduate and become a second lieutenant — become an officer. And I didn't realize how deeply I’d buried it until the murder of Vanessa Guillen. And then, when I looked at her face — I mean, as a young Latina — I saw my face as a young Latina. Because I was 21 when that happened. I also experienced quite a bit of harassment and hazing early in my career. As I increased in rank, I increased in power and privilege, and it became much more covert. But initially, it was very overt, right in my face — that I didn't belong. That I shouldn't be there. Sometimes it was because I was a woman. Sometimes it's because I was a Latina.

CF: Can you explain to me that sensation of recognizing buried memories after all that time? Was it somewhat gradual? Or did it hit you like a freight train?

LCF: It’s been gradual. But the initial memory hit me like a freight train. I mean, I would wake up at two, three in the morning. Like, I couldn't believe it. I decided to write this book because of the overwhelming response I had due to an op-ed and a poem I wrote…

"While the world raged against a pandemic in 2020, the first in 100 years, I raged against a virulent strain of testosterone-filled traumas

While the country masked up and used antibacterial sanitizer to keep the virus at bay, I lifted the mask that hid years of sexual harassment while serving my country

While the nation underwent lockdowns and faced months of darkness to protect its citizens from the virus, I came into the light…"

Carson, they started calling me, writing to me. And I'm like, wow, I need to tell my story and I need to include others. Because there's so many of us who didn't speak up… Or if we spoke up, we experienced retaliation. So that's when I decided to write the book. Then I just started interviewing people and that kind of thing. And I'm real proud of the diversity in the book. I mean, it spans 52 years, from the Vietnam-era to the present day. It includes vets from every branch of service. It has two active duty individuals in there too. I've used pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Every chapter tells their journey and, at the end, talks about what they're doing now — the resilience they've exhibited — or the types of therapies they're going through. In other words: how are they dealing with their trauma on a day to day basis?

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

CF: It's great that you include the whole arc of that experience.

LCF: Right. I wanted to show that their accomplishments are truly amazing — when you see the disparities that they had to endure — to get where they are today.

CF: I find that there's always a tendency with great women leaders to bring other people up, to be a mouthpiece for others.

LCF: Exactly right. I think it's my responsibility to bring people up. Plus, I don't want anybody to suffer like I did. I fight for the underdog because of that. I know what it feels like to be marginalized, discriminated against, assaulted, harassed. No one should suffer that kind of pain in any workplace environment or any home. They should be safe. I'm still very loyal to the military. I just want it to change. I want the infrastructure, the systems and the people to be educated enough to make these changes. The culture has to change.

CF: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about military sexual trauma today? What should we debunk in this conversation and others?

LCF: I think one of the biggest things is that it is much more rampant, much more entrenched, on a higher scale, than we ever thought. I think we really don't even have a handle on it because so many people do not speak up about it. So I think, number one, it's severely underreported. More people have experienced this than we know. It's not a matter of record yet. Also, it could happen to anybody and everybody, and it does. Just look at the diversity in the book. I mean, there's Latinos, there's gay and lesbian people in the book, there's officers, there's enlisted, there's combat veterans, you know, and every branch of course, is represented. So, anybody and everybody.

CF: Are you encouraged by this last NDAA making sexual harassment a crime under the UCMJ? Are you satisfied that sexual assault was taken out of the chain of command, or are you worried about some residual bleed over there?

LCF: You know, I've been a commander many times in my career in the military. If you would’ve asked me that 10 years ago, I would have said “No, it needs to stay in the chain of command.” Because I know how I lead as a commander, and I take care of my troops, and I could handle it. And I felt like I had the right judgment and the right character to do that. But we have proven in the military, over time, that we cannot do that. I hate to say this, but not all commanders have the same level of integrity. So what we need to do is what just happened… is take it out of the chain of command. Again, the stats are all there, the metrics are there. We have failed to get a handle on this. We have never really been truly intentional. And now we're being forced to because of the congressional changes that just happened. But I am still concerned, because I feel like we're changing military justice and the laws. But we haven't changed the culture yet. And that is what I really hope this book does, by educating people. When you think about this as this could be your mother, your sister, your brother, your grandfather, you know… when you look at it that way, it can really impact you.

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Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.