I am SCHRIEVER: Reward through hardship

Kaley Nowicki, formerly a 4th Space Operations Squadron communications systems operator and now a full-time student, is a sexual assault survivor. Nowicki has turned her experience into a positive outlook and is now aiming to become a photojournalist who focuses on telling other survivors’ stories. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Brian Hagberg)

Kaley Nowicki, formerly a 4th Space Operations Squadron communications systems operator and now a full-time student, is a sexual assault survivor. Nowicki has turned her experience into a positive outlook and is now aiming to become a photojournalist who focuses on telling other survivors’ stories. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Brian Hagberg)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- (Editor's note: Per the victim's request, the assailant's name in this story has been changed.)

At some point, everyone will experience hardship: loss of a loved one, ending a relationship or losing a job can lead to major life-changing events.

Leaving her small town in upstate New York, Kaley Nowicki never could have imagined the hardships and trauma she would face.

Limited opportunities led her to join the Air Force to achieve her college goals.

While at tech school, Nowicki met "Jim." The two became close friends and both were assigned to Schriever. Nowicki as a 4th Space Operations Squadron communications systems operator working on the Milstar satellite. Once they moved out of dormitory housing, they found some roommates and rented a house together.

Though others insinuated the pair were dating, Nowicki said she told Jim from Day 1 their relationship was strictly platonic.

"People would joke that we were dating, but when I first met him I laid it out straight and said I am not interested. I want to be friends," she said. "And he was totally fine with that."

Or so she thought.

In November 2012, Nowicki found out Jim had been sexually assaulting her while recording it on his phone.

"He felt he could take videos of me without me knowing and without my consent and blamed it on alcohol when I didn't drink," Nowicki said. "I was the only girl (in the house) and he just took it upon himself to take advantage of me when I didn't know."

When one of her friends first approached her regarding the assault, Nowicki didn't believe it was true.

"I need proof," she said. "Jim was my best friend and I didn't believe it for a second. Well, I got proof and that's when I moved out."

Nowicki's own doubts, as well as those from the small group of friends who knew about the assault, kept her from immediately reporting the incident.

"I didn't think anybody would believe me," she said. "The small group of people that did know were kind of doubtful that it would go anywhere."

Many of Nowicki's doubts stemmed from a previous sexual assault where, in a cruel twist of fate, Jim was one of her biggest supporters.

"They were just like, 'I don't know, you tried (reporting the other incident) and that one was a little more intense and it didn't work. And you've been friends with this guy,'" she said.

The wing's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response down day held June 25, 2013 helped Nowicki decide to report, though not through the actual training or information provided that day.

"We were placed in small groups and he was in my group," Nowicki said. "It was like slow motion walking into that room and he turned around in that chair. I was like, yep, this is going to end now. This is not happening."

Because she didn't want to report on her birthday, Kaley waited until June 27 to head to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator's office.

"I was with her through the first (incident)," said Paula Krause, Schriever SARC and Kaley's victim advocate. "So when she walked back through the door, my heart broke for her. I just felt sick in my stomach that this friend she had trusted for years had violated her in such a way."

After discussing all her options with Krause, Nowicki decided to file an unrestricted report of the incident, meaning the news of her assault would be shared with the Office of Special Investigations and her commander.

"I chose to do an unrestricted report," Nowicki said. "Basically, I wanted my commander to know. I wanted OSI to know. I wanted an investigation. That was kind of the point where I decided I don't care what my peers think, because unrestricted, it does put it out there."

"We talked and (I asked) if she wanted to go unrestricted. Not trying to discourage her from doing it, but I wanted to make sure she was realistic," Krause said. "She said, 'Yep, I want to make sure this doesn't happen to somebody else.'"

Nowicki said the reporting process was difficult at times because she had to recount everything that happened to her, but through the process, healing began.

"It was extremely uncomfortable. The hardest thing about the reporting process is the moment you walk in to Paula's office and you know what you're about to do," she said. "Unrestricted reporting almost forces you to start healing as you go through the process. It's not easy, if it was easy sexual assault wouldn't be an issue. It's not meant to be easy. You're also not meant to be assaulted."

Nowicki's report led to an OSI investigation and court martial for Jim more than a year later.

"It was a waiting game," she said. "I still went to work, I still had a life. Your world does not stop, and that's something I don't think I expected. Your world doesn't pause for you to get better."

Being able to testify during the court martial made the waiting game worth it for Nowicki.

"Thinking about (testifying), working up to it, I was terrified. It was bone-chilling fear. It was the most primitive fear," Nowicki said. "The first thing I really remember is sitting at the stand and seeing him, looking at him and the fear just dissipating. It turned into, 'this is my chance. I got you.'

"Just to say it, to sit on the stand, under oath, and say what happened in front of the person that did it to you, and there's nothing they can do. They can't stop you, they can't interrupt you. It's your turn. It was the highlight of the whole experience because it was the moment where the healing really started."

Kaley found out just how powerful her testimony was when the jury returned a guilty verdict against Jim.

"(My first thought was) he's never going to do it to someone else," she said while fighting back tears. "I didn't think he would be guilty. I didn't think anyone would believe me. The fact that a jury or a panel of strangers, with no tie to me, looked at me and basically said, 'We believe you.' That's self-validation right there."

While the guilty verdict was the ultimate reward, Nowicki said she wouldn't have been able to endure the reporting process without the support of Krause and other victim advocates.

"I think I would be dead (without them). That's hard to say, but I don't think I'd be here," she said.

Both women had to wipe away tears as Nowicki described how she viewed Krause through the process.

"It's like being in the darkness and everything's really loud and you can't focus. Then there's this light and it starts to get quieter the closer you get. That was Paula in this situation," Nowicki said. "If it was a different SARC, at a different base, I never would've reported it. It had to be her, it was meant to be her. She's the light at the end of the tunnel and in the tunnel and around the tunnel."

Krause was quick to point out Nowicki's strength and courage through the process.

"She hasn't mentioned how strong and courageous she is, but she's amazing. She has such a caring heart for others, even (after) everything she's been through, she wants to make sure others are safe. I just have huge respect for her," Krause said.

Nowicki's life has improved on multiple fronts since that November day in 2012. In September 2015, Nowicki married her husband, Robert, who ironically began dating her within days of Kaley finding out she had been assaulted.

"I have no idea how we ended up married," she laughed. "In my mind, that would've been the one person I never would've wanted to be with because it would remind me. But he doesn't remind me of it. He reminds me of how strong I was, and how he loved me regardless of how crazy I was acting."

She's attending college now as well, majoring in photojournalism with a goal of interviewing and photographing other sexual assault victims to give the crime an identity in the public mind.

"The fact that I have this whole plan that somehow relates to sexual assault is so powerful to me. You'd think I'd want to run away from it and have nothing to do with it, but I want my life to be related to preventing and spreading awareness. I want to make people uncomfortable, so they listen," she said.

Krause said seeing Kaley happy now is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.

"She went through so much and I love seeing that she's on the other side. I love hearing, 'yeah I'm married. I'm going to school. I'm happy. I'm excited about life,'" she said. "I love hearing that because it makes my job worthwhile, it really does. To know that in some small way, I helped her get to that other side, is awesome."

Nowicki hopes by sharing her story, she can inspire other victims who may be unsure about whether they should report to come forward. For them, she had this message.

"Go, do it," Nowicki said. "Be embarrassed. Let your peers say what they want about you. Take it with your head held high.

"I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life, and it's because of the court martial and the process," she concluded. "I would do it over and over and over again, just to be who I am right now."