I parked next to the blue Subaru Outback with the easily recognizable Vermont green license plates. Being in a constant hyper-vigilance state is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and I am always aware of my surroundings.
I took my yoga mat out of my trunk and walked into my favorite yoga studio. I rolled my mat down in my usual spot, in the back with my back facing the wall. I sat in seated meditation focusing on my breathing and clearing my mind as I transitioned from a hectic workday to the 75 minutes of pure bliss that lays ahead of me. The woman next to me kindly interrupted me asking what props were needed for this class. Ahh, a newbie. I got up to help her.
We exchanged small talk, and she said she was visiting from Vermont. I told her that I was stationed in the Coast Guard in Burlington way back in 2006. That was the extent of our talk before class begun.
After class, I made my way back to my car. The Vermont woman went to the Subaru parked next to mine. She thanked me again for helping her set up for class.
“So you were in the Coast Guard right on the lake, right?” she asked.
“Were you there during the rape?”
I nodded again.
“Do you know the Coast Guard rape victim?”
I get asked this question so often that it no longer shocks me.
Some say it’s a Vermont thing. My friend, a native of Vermont said, “Not much goes on here, and your rape comes up a whole lot.” Many in Vermont protested the Coast Guard’s response to my brutal rape and demanded my rapist to be prosecuted. I never received justice. What I did receive was tremendous support, even to this day, from Vermonters. They have been instrumental in advocating with me to put an end to sexual violence in the military.
I do not even know this woman’s name, and she knows about the worst day of my life. I responded by saying, “I was raped while serving at the Coast Guard Burlington. Please do not call me the Coast Guard Burlington rape victim. I have a name. My name is Panayiota Bertzikis.”
“Panayiota” is my first name. I was named after my paternal grandmother who was the strongest feminist that I have ever met. Grandma Panayiota raised six children in Greece despite the poverty and hardships of post-World War II Europe. She worked hard to provide a good life for all of her children. All six of her children grew up to be very successful in their careers and personal lives.
“Bertzikis” is my family name. The name Bertzikis was created during the time of the Greek genocide. A family member was forced to change his name to Bertzikis, which translates, or so I was told, to “the tall one.” I don’t know much about him, but I like to think that if he was like every other Bertzikis, he was strong and resilient. I am sure after the war he fought hard, he succeeded, and he prospered.
It was a Bertzikis (my dad) who moved to the United States as a young man with just spare change in his pocket and a dream in his heart. Through hard work and dedication, he fulfilled his American dream. He built a very successful business that provided financial security to his children. There was not a single thing in my childhood that I was lacking. I lived a very privileged life growing up in New York City. We were taught to use our privileges for good, to not only give back to the community to help others but also to work toward dismantling the societal structure that contributes to inequality.
As a child, I was taught to take pride in my name. When I came home from school one day in seventh grade, I talked to my parents about some issues I was experiencing at school. Long story short, in a typical middle school drama kind of way, my group of friends wanted me to stop being friend with Helen simply because they did not find her “cool enough.” My dad asked, “What does a Bertzikis do?” and I knew then that the only option I had that could give me a clear conscience was to remain friends with Helen and stand up to her bullies. In good times, bad times, confusing middle school times, and after a brutal rape, I knew that I always had my family’s back, and they always had mine. I am very blessed.
Now that you know my name, let me tell you who Panayiota Bertzikis is:
I am a wife to a wonderful husband (love you, Patrick) and proud mom to the best little boy in the whole world (so what if I am biased). I am also a friend to so many beautiful, caring people who I am so fortunate to have met throughout the years. I am a yogi, avid reader, lover of ice cream, and I love traveling. I have nightmares of my rape on a regular basis. I take notice of every person I see and live in constant fear that one day I’ll run into the man who wanted me to change my identity to “Coast Guard Burlington rape victim.”
I am someone who experienced rape. I refuse to allow what happened to me to further define me. Do not call me a victim. Do not even call me a survivor. Call me by my name.
I am strong. I am ambitious. I am powerful. I survived a very violent crime. I shared my story. I created ways through the Military Rape Crisis Center, an organization that I founded, for others to share their stories. I fought for legislation to help put an end to any more stories. I have helped others fight for their rights. We lost some fights, but we won so much more.
Rape is something that happened to me. I experienced a very brutal rape while serving at Coast Guard station in Burlington, Vermont. I accept the changes in my life that came with being raped — the nightmares, the headaches, the flashbacks, PTSD, being the poster child for military rape . However, none of those are my identity.
The Coast Guard Burlington rape victim is the identity that my rapist gave me through his actions. Panayiota Bertzikis, the mom, wife, human rights activist, yogi, world traveler, executive director, author, a friend, is the identity that I gave myself through my actions.