A former service member is refusing to let a sexual assault within the ranks stop her from living life to the fullest and is instead using her experience to inform and inspire others.
Stefanie Marvin-Miller of Murfreesboro is a wife, university student, veteran and public speaker on the topics of sexual assault in the military and service dogs. She asked that the military branch she served in not be named for safety reasons.
Two great-grandfathers served in World War II, and her grandfather served in the Army, she said. She served as a human resource specialist, the same position held by one of her great-grandfathers. She said she took pride in supporting her unit in Operation Enduring Freedom.
She said she was medically discharged after being diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder following an alleged sexual assault by a servicemember in January 2016 at age 22. With her husband’s support, she decided to report the incident rather than taking the safe route and stay quiet, knowing that by reporting she would give up her military career, she said.
Her husband, Joshua Miller, said, “That was not her intention, but that was the result.”
Marvin-Miller said, “We kind of knew it would happen. There were many good servicemembers, but it took a few bad ones,” adding she was ostracized by most people in her unit.
She said her identity was wrapped up in her career, and she entered a “dark time. I felt I had lost everything I had worked for. I didn’t know how to recover from a downward spiral.”
So, as she was leaving the military with a PTSD diagnosis, she began applying to veteran service dog organizations.
One might think she would easily have found acceptance. That did not happen.
Marvin-Miller said she received 11 rejection letters from veteran service dog organizations, which said her PTSD from sexual assault did not qualify for help – they only recognized PTSD from combat trauma, she said.
She had applied to 15 organizations, and “out of the blue,” Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto, Florida, said “Yes.” It can take up to three years to get approved for a dog. But, she connected with her service dog, Leland, 98 days after being discharged in 2018.
Marvin-Miller said she attended two weeks of training in Florida with the yellow Labrador retriever, all at no cost. “It was like a dream for me.”
She and Leland graduated from the program on June 14, 2018.
This is her first semester back at Middle Tennessee State University since she quit school to join the military, Marvin-Miller said. The sophomore is majoring in Industrial Psychology-Human Resources, the work she performed in the military.
“Now, we cross MTSU every day,” she said, referring to Leland. “These are things I couldn’t have done without him.”
Leland knows about 20 commands, she said, and will perform specific tasks when she has episodes. Those include helping her get off the floor; picking objects up; bringing her husband to her if he’s needed; taking her to a quiet place in public; getting her out of a room; ensuring no one is hiding in a room before she enters; and applying pressure to her lap or chest if she has nightmares to help soothe her nervous system.
“We don’t know how he senses I am about to have an episode,” she said. “I will be on campus and get overwhelmed and have an episode and he will be there to distract me, push me out of it. It’s awesome.”
Marvin-Miller said that Southeastern Guide Dogs is important to her and she loves to engage in public speaking opportunities to spread the word. She has mostly spoken at events for donors and dog trainers, but said she is open to speaking at universities and other events.
She also wants to spread the word that military sexual trauma is a real issue even though it’s not discussed much in the open. Talking about it will give survivors a voice and get society closer to solving the problem, she said.
“It is a service-connected PTSD,” she said.
Since the time she was rejected by 11 service dog organizations, the tide has turned a little, she said, and she has heard of a couple of groups recognizing military sexual trauma.
Marvin-Miller was asked if she had experienced any problems taking her service dog out in public and about the issue of fake service dogs.
She said she had trouble at only one restaurant, which was out of state. Per the Americans With Disabilities Act, businesses are allowed to ask only two questions: Is this a service dog, and what task is it trained for. She said she and her husband are happy to answer those questions, and they and Leland try to set good examples and not be disruptive.
Joshua Miller said the biggest problem for his wife comes from fake service dogs, especially at airports.
She said, “People like their pets, I get it, but they’re not trained as service animals. That distracts Leland, and he maneuvers me around the fake dog and takes 15 minutes extra. He ignores them, but if they bark or want to play, it distracts him and he’s not helping me.”
Marvin-Miller said that she avoids taking Leland to areas like home improvement stores, which allow non-service dogs to enter, instead traveling with her husband for support.
Joshua Miller said, “We joke that before Leland was, I was the service dog.”
Marvin-Miller was asked for tips on what to do if you encounter someone with a service dog – do not try to pet it, talk to it or make other contact. In other words, ignore the dog, because that would be like trying to interfere with a person using a cane, she said.
Leland, who is going on 4, has many years of work ahead of him, Marvin-Miller said. Southeastern requires their dogs to retire at age 11. Leland will live out his golden years in retirement with the Millers.
As part of her effort to bring more attention to Southeastern Guide Dogs, Marvin-Miller said, she wants people to be aware they need volunteers to raise puppies as well as make donations. Volunteers who raise puppies receive training; the puppy goes through kindergarten, and then the volunteer cares for the animal for the first 9 months to one year to socialize it.
Southeastern Guide Dogs is accredited by two organizations – the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International, according to a press release. More information is available at www.GuideDogs.org.