By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (April 21, 2016) -- Monika Korra was raped in December 2009, after leaving a party with her friends.
Korra and her pals left the party early because they were athletes and planned to get up early the next day to do their morning run. It was then she was kidnapped and raped at gunpoint, she told an audience at the Pentagon, April 20.
Typical for sexual assault crimes, the police and media withheld her name from the public. The justice system even used a pseudonym for her to protect her identity during prosecution of the offenders. But after it was all over and the criminals had been brought to justice, Korra opted to go public with her story and reveal her identity.
By that time, she'd come a long way in recovering from the rape she suffered, but the press accounts of it -- which now included her real name -- left a bad taste in her mouth.
"Rape victim Monika Korra," she said, recalling the typical format for related headlines. She bristled at the word "victim."
"I hated that. To see that, rape 'victim' Monika Korra? I was fighting every day to step out of that role. But that's how people were viewing me," she said.
But she knew different. Korra was a runner and had been since she was a little girl.
"That's who I've been my entire life and that's who I am going to continue to be," she said. She wasn't a "victim," she decided. She was a "runner."
Running, she said, is her passion, "the thing that gave me identity in life. I feel like that's the thing that reassured me that I don't have to live my life as a victim. I'm a survivor and a runner. I think that's important to realize with rape. It doesn't have to identify you. It's not who you are, it's something that happened to you -- a crime committed against you. Who you are is what you are passionate about and what you love."
Passion about something, Korra said, is one of the five elements of her recovery after being assaulted. The others include openness, hope, justice, and forgiveness.
Korra is from Norway. Back home she has two parents and an older sister.
"Sports was a big part of what I was from two years old," she said. "In Norway we have a saying that babies are born with skis on their feet."
She said she was skiing at just three years old. "From that day I've been competitive, and I knew that's what I wanted to do," she said.
Korra started in cross-country skiing, and then later moved to running. In high school she represented Norway in international competition. After the Junior World Championship, she said, an event she competed in during high school, she got a call from the United States. "A voice on the phone was speaking in English," she recalled.
It was a coach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He wanted her to come to their school to run for them, on scholarship, for cross country and track.
"For me that was a dream come true," she said. "I got to go to the United States to follow my dream to become a professional runner. I told him yes, I'm coming."
Months later, she's in Dallas. She said she had some transition problems: a language barrier, meeting people, a different culture, being from a small town in Norway and moving to Dallas, "everything was just big," she said. But "people in Dallas just welcomed me and took care of me, my teammates and coach. I transitioned into a new way of life and I really stated to enjoy it."
An injury early on in her first year kept her off the track for a few months, and provided time for reflection on her choices, but proved only a small hurdle for her.
By the end of her freshman year, she'd met a guy from the tennis team who was from Sweden. He became her boyfriend. "That turns my whole world around," she said. "Everything is perfect. I'm smiling. I'm having the time of my life."
A BUBBLE BROKEN
During the school year she ran and studied both psychology and physiology. She had friends and a boyfriend. Life was good for her then, she said, living inside the protected world of the university.
But she recalls that her boyfriend had at one point pulled her out of that bubble briefly and reminded her how dangerous the world is.
At his apartment, she said, "after we watched a movie ... he looked at me in a way that told me he was worried. He took my hand and asked me if I had heard about the girl from our school, a fellow student athlete who had been raped. That was a case we had all heard about."
A fellow student, Korra said, an athlete on the swim team who lived in the same apartments as Korra and her boyfriend, had been raped.
"I didn't want to think about that or talk about it," she said. "I knew it had happened, but I didn't want to realize that happened in our perfect world. Rape to me was something that we read about in the media; something that happened far, far away."
Her boyfriend, she said, insisted on walking her home that night.
Just two weeks later, on Dec. 5, 2009, Korra was herself raped. "The worst night of my life," she said.
With her friends she had gone to a student athlete party. All the students there were from SMU. She and her friends opted to leave the party earlier than others in order to be ready for their morning running ritual. Outside the party they looked for their ride home, a friend they had called to pick them up.
"Three girls hand-in-hand walked towards his car," she said. "But then suddenly another car comes pulling up next to his. And I hear screaming. And the next second I have two men grabbing me from behind and I have a gun placed next to my head. And I'm pulled into their van. I realized quickly what was about to happen."
The men stripped her of her clothing.
"One at a time, two at a time, three at a time," she said. They raped her repeatedly, for over an hour.
"I prayed I would survive," she said. "I realized rape is not about sex. It's about power, control and anger."
In their vehicle, she said, she saw the shoes of another woman. "I realized they had done this before, that I was not their first victim."
But after they assaulted her, they let her go, she said. They put duct tape over her eyes and pushed her out of the vehicle.
"They told me to run. And that's what I did," she said.
She credits the Dallas Police Department with eventually finding her after she got out of the vehicle. They'd been alerted by her friends that she'd been taken.
"Luckily I was found and I was brought to safety. I was taken to the hospital for treatment," she said. "I survived. But in the hospital I just asked myself will I ever be the same again?"
She said she was worried about the repercussions the rape would have on her existing relationships: with her boyfriend, with her family, with her coach and her running career
"Will I ever be able to smile again?" she said she asked herself.
The next day, on the way home from the hospital, she said, she acknowledged that she had survived the rape.
"What were the chances of you surviving something like this," she recalled having asked herself. "I realized in that moment it's going to be a struggle, but I'm willing to fight for it. I'm 20 years old, I'm happy -- always been a happy girl -- I live a perfect, good life. I'm willing to fight for that. At that moment I made the decision, I will not let this destroy who I am. I will fight back. I will fight back to the girl I used to be before this."
SURVIVORSHIP, NOT VICTIMHOOD
A big part of Korra's recovery after being raped, she said, was that the perpetrators of that crime were brought to justice.
"I knew we had to work to find them," she said. "And the police did a great job. But there were long hours before they were found."
Those perpetrators were found, actually, and rather quickly. Just three days afterward, the police had captured them. The three men had taken Korra's cell phone from her when they kidnapped her. Because her friends were calling her repeatedly after she was taken, they had turned that phone off. The police, Korra said, knew the criminals had the phone and made efforts to track it.
Later, those same criminals opted to turn Korra's phone on again "they used it for drug dealing," she said.
The police were tracking the phone and that's how the perpetrators were caught. When Korra got word of that, it was "the best day of my life," she said. "That was relief. I could walk out of that police station and feel safe again."
It was about a year before the first trial began for her attackers. She'd been encouraged to testify, to face them in court, and she did just that, she said. She was ready to see them again.
In the end, all three of her attackers were convicted. Two of them got life in prison. One got 25 years in prison.
"To see that and to know that they are locked up ... I can feel safe now," she said. "That's a mental picture I've been going back to so many times in my recovery process."
CALLING MOM AND DAD
"I'd been an athlete all my life," Korra said. "And in this family, we are known for being stubborn."
She said as an athlete, and being stubborn, she's used to managing her goals on her own. Asking for help, she said, "I looked at that as a sign of weakness."
But she saw that following a rape she knew she couldn't do it on her own. She said she knew she'd need to be open with her family and friends about what happened, and to be willing to lean on them for support.
"I've come a long way from that day," she said. "I know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Sometimes that's what you need to do. "I realized quickly to get through this was to allow other people to help."
Calling her parents after she was raped, she said, was one of the hardest things she'd ever done.
"I dialed their number over and over and over. I just couldn't do it. I didn't know what to say," she said.
She said she wanted to find a "good way" to tell her parents what had happened, but came to the conclusion there would be no way to soften the blow.
Finally she called, making sure first that her parents were together. With her boyfriend at her side, she said, she dialed.
"We were on the phone for an hour," she said. And her parents "surprised me that day."
Her mother, she said, told her "Monika, I can hear strength in your voice. No matter how long it will take, no matter how much effort, we will be in this together. You are not alone."
"That's what gave me hope," she said.
Hope, she said, is focusing on the future, and keeping faith that things will get better. "That first year was challenging, I was waiting for the first trial to start," she said. "It took a year. I was worried I'd have to see my offenders on the street again."
A few weeks before the first trial, she said, she was depressed and tired. But she was running again, and it was before finals, so she was focused on academics as well. "It was important to keep my grades up. I didn't want people to see that this affected me at all."
On campus, she said she saw a poster for a "Take Back the Night" event. "I thought, I need to attend this."
She walked around campus with several hundred other students during the event, shouting "take back the night!" she recalled. "That was empowering to me."
Later, at the school's student center, students held candles in their hands. A student leader read statements aloud. She'd been instructed that if one of the statements applied to her, she was to blow out her candle.
"She read several statements," Korra said. "And the last really touched me. She asked if somebody close to us, family or friend, our ourselves, had been victims of sexual assault."
So she blew out her own candle, but the significance of that wasn't immediately apparent.
"I stood there and I was questioning, what's the point of this? Now we're standing in darkness and I'm showing people I'm the victim of rape," she said. But then: "The next second, a person comes up to me. I don't know who he was. He relit my candle. And I said thank you. That's a sign to me that in the darkest of moments there is hope. Sometimes it's one simple act of kindness, somebody we don't know, to show you there is hope. That turned things around for me. That gave me strength back to get ready for that coming trial."
MEETING HER ATTACKER FACE-TO-FACE
Korra said that for her, "forgiveness" is also an element of her recovery from rape. People misconstrue the meaning of that, however, she said.
"It's not about becoming fiends with my offenders. It's not about accepting what they did to me. It's about finding peace through letting go," she said. "I met them one night of my life. I don't want them to have a hold on my future. I don't want to spend more energy on them. I don't want to spend more time with them. I don't want to spend my time feeling anger and hate. I want to spend my time with the people I love."
Korra actually pursued a one-on-one with one of those three attackers. After about a year, that meeting was set up through a program called "victim-offender mediation," that could only happen if the offender agreed. Korra was able to meet with one of the men -- the one who received the 25-year sentence.
"We talked for two or three hours," she said. "When he walked into the room, he was crying. And it took him a long time before he was able to raise his head and meet my eyes. He told me how sorry he was."
He had a letter he had prepared for her. And she asked him questions about himself. She learned he'd been in a gang, that he had himself been abused, that he thought the gang was a kind of family -- but later learned they were far from it.
"I just felt when I walked out of the room that day I was able to leave all that behind," she said. "That day I was able to take back my past and my future."
FOCUS ON THE OFFENDER
Immediately after she was raped, Korra said she started keeping a journal. That journal eventually became a book, called "Kill the Silence: A Survivor's Life Reclaimed." She also has a foundation dedicated to killing "the silence surrounding rape and abuse," and to also assist survivors of any kind of violence.
Korra said one thing she has learned from talking with other survivors of rape is just how "empowering it is to realize you are not alone. That there are other people out there that know what you have been through."
Another thing she learned, a reason why those who have been sexually assaulted are reluctant to speak out: people have got to stop blaming the victim.
"Victim-blaming is a big part of this issue," she said. "The media is a big part of that, with how they portray the victim, how they focus on the victim. 'What did you do out late at night?' 'Had you been drinking?' 'Why were you wearing a dress?' Those are questions we get all the time. Questions I got after this happened.
"That is why a victim feels shame, and feels guilt and why they don't want to report," she said, pointing out that only 30 percent of rapes are reported.
The Army is working to combat sexual assault in its ranks, just like college campuses are working to put a stop to rapes there as well.
The demographics are similar. College campuses are largely 17 to 25-year-olds. The enlisted population is made up mostly of 18 to 25-year olds.
"In the military or on a college campus, it's about awareness and openness," Korra said of what's needed to end sexual assault and rape. "We need to address this as an issue. We need to realize we have to work to prevent it. It's a culture change that we shouldn't focus on the victim, but focus on the perpetrator. We need to stop asking questions of what the victim was doing wrong and rather focus on the perpetrator, and what we can do to prevent this."
Korra speaks a lot at military bases around the country, and that's a forum for her for a reason, she said. Soldiers have influence.
"We know that people look up to Solders and the work they do and the risk they take for our safety," she said. "I think they can set an example if they talk about this. If they work on the awareness and prevention, I think people will listen."