Sunday, June 29, 2003

'Being a rape victim is like being in a secret club'



Laura Pulfer

This is every parent's nightmare.

Mike Kelly, a columnist at the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska, was at his desk when he got a call from police about his daughter. The words "Bridget" and "shot" and "raped" stunned him. "Is she still alive?" he asked.

She was still breathing.

Mike called his wife, Barb, in Cincinnati visiting family. The Kellys' roots go deep here. Barb went to Marian, Mike to Elder. The couple, who celebrated their 32nd anniversary Thursday, met at the University of Cincinnati. This is where they come for holidays, where they brought their daughter to heal.

But this is Bridget's story.

Here's how she tells it.

A 24-year-old teacher in Killeen, Texas, Bridget was alone in her apartment at midnight June 21 a year ago when a man kicked down her double-locked door. The stranger shoved a gun in her chest and made her drive to an ATM and withdraw $200.

She talked to him. "I tried to get him to see me as a person." She prayed.

He told her to shut up.

Still, she tried. "I love teaching children to read," she said. "Do you remember your teachers?" No response.

"I even rattled off part of 'Peter Rabbit.' He just kept blocking me out, keeping the wall up." They kept driving.

"I remember seeing this field coming up," she says. "And I thought about my parents, sleeping." A lot of people love me, she thought. He ordered her from the car.

"God doesn't want you to do this," she said. Through the horror of the rape, she continued to pray. The monster shot her three times in the back. She played dead, and he drove off in her car.

"I never lost consciousness," she says. She crawled, then stumbled to her feet, staggering the length of two football fields to a house. An Army veteran opened the door. "He knew exactly what to do," Bridget says. "He'd seen gunshot wounds."

As doctors repaired her stomach, colon, liver, spleen, intestines and diaphragm - 6 1/2 hours of surgery - Bridget's attacker drove some friends to the field to show them the body. Arrested with Bridget's cell phone in his pocket, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life and 40 years. "I do not forgive him," Mike says. "I wish I could take a baseball bat to him."

After recuperating in Cincinnati, Bridget returned to her class and is taking her life back. Part of that is telling what happened. When she was still in the hospital, a tube down her throat, unable to speak, her father said there would be news stories.

"Rape?" she wrote.

No, they won't say that, her father told her.

"Why?" she scribbled.

Later she would say, "Being a rape victim is like being in a secret club - so much shame and secrecy. It keeps women from seeking the help they need. We can support each other." She had counseling, weekly at first, and volunteers for Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, telling her story on the Web site (www.taasa.org).

In an article he wrote for the Dallas Morning News, Mike said, "She is not diminished, she is not stigmatized, she is not shamed." Then he hands me a copy of the paper. Bridget is gazing directly at the camera. Beautiful. Confident. Happy.

Every parent's dream.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.




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