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Dunedin veteran opens up about sexual harassment in musical, book

Laura Westley can't bring herself to look at the comments.

"I don't want to see them," says Westley, a 37-year-old Army veteran and Dunedin resident who turned author and playwright to tell the story of her life. Family struggle, sexual harassment, and a suicide attempt are woven through her tale, all part of a damaging pursuit of perfection.

Westley wrote a column recently for the independent publication Military Times about how to change the service's approach to sexual harassment — an ordeal she experienced throughout her time in uniform, from West Point cadet to the days after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The column was excerpted in Friday's Tampa Bay Times.

"I know Internet trolls exist, to spew vitriol," Westley said. But they weren't the only ones moved by her story. "I am getting tremendous feedback. I have people reaching out to me. A lot of women have their own stories to share."

Westley turns to a more intimate forum today at 8 p.m. when she stars in a musical she wrote, titled War Virgin, at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. Next month, she will take the show to her alma mater.

The play follows the release Sept. 11 of a memoir by the same name.

War Virgin comes at a time when women are eligible to take on more jobs in the military, including special operations work with units like the Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets. So far, at least one came up short trying to make the grade as commandos — according to the Washington Times, during Green Beret testing.

"I think we have to keep trying," Westley said. And she doesn't see lowering standards as the answer.

Her writing and performances take the military — as well as her own family — to task, but she insists her motive is to open eyes and bring people together.

"My number one goal is to help people liberate themselves from so much pressure to be perfect. That is not just for military people. There are a lot of oppressive forces out there that make people do so many harmful things to themselves to be perfect."

• • •

Westley, a 1997 graduate of River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, was a standout athlete, top scholar and class salutatorian.

But none of that was ever good enough for her father, a driving force in her works whose rules for her included abstaining from sex to keep that "sparkle in the eye" that signaled she wasn't "damaged goods."

War Virgin is the antithesis of the "so-there-we-were" genre of war stories.

While at West Point, Westley says, her biggest problems were with a religious group she joined on campus only to find it promoted sexual discrimination.

During her time in Iraq, she struggled with sexual harassment, including a superior officer who tried to bunk with her then reprimanded her when she declined. She said she informed her brigade commander, who assigned her to a different unit. She opted not to file a formal complaint.

After leaving the Army as a captain in 2006, and coming to grips with depression, estrangement from family and friends, and a 2014 suicide attempt, Westley put pen to paper to reveal things most people — military or civilian — would rather keep hidden.

• • •

Her candor and veteran status have made Westley a sought-after voice on gender issues in the military. She says she felt she had to outperform her male classmates, engage in innuendo and sexual banter, and put up with sexual harassment just to feel like an equal.

In response to concerns about sexual assault, the military has created programs like the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention program and the Department of Defense SAFE Helpline, which serves as the department's sexual assault hotline.

Still, Westley said, more needs to be done.

"In my opinion, the military needs a fundamental change in its culture," she wrote in the column. "It's okay to be an assertive warrior, but that doesn't justify degrading or belittling a teammate, tolerating harassment or conforming to the macho culture."

Westley says she avoided reading the comments on the column, acting on advice she received from the Washington Post after writing her first essay on the subject.

She is not averse to criticism. But constructive and respectful conversations are an approach Westley says she hopes to engender with her musical.

She has future performances scheduled later this month in Boston and next month in Asheville, N.C., as well as at the Thayer Hotel on the campus of West Point — billed as an alternative event for the Class of 2001's 15th reunion.

The hotel is a private institution. West Point officials declined comment for this story.

"I am not in the military anymore," Westley says, "but I want people who are in it, or policy makers, to hear what I need to say and have a productive conversation and make positive change."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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