She survived rape and her attacker's threats to kill her, but Ellen Maschka of Omaha never has spoken publicly about it until now — 20 years later.
A Nebraska Supreme Court decision rejecting her attacker's appeal once referred to her case as Assault No. 6.
But now she wants her name, not a number, attached to her story.
“It's been long enough,” Ellen said. “I just don't feel I need to be quiet anymore.”
Thursday evening, she will moderate a panel discussion after a 6:30 p.m. showing of “The Invisible War” at the Aksarben Cinema. The Oscar-nominated documentary is about sexual assaults in the military.
She is not a veteran but feels she is a comrade of all survivors of sexual violence. It was her idea to arrange for the film's showing, which is co-sponsored by the Domestic Violence Council to help mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
A day after watching the movie last year, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a special victims unit in the military. He also ordered new procedures that allow soldiers who report sexual assaults to be transferred to other units, so as to lessen the chance of pressure or harassment.
His successor as defense secretary, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, also is addressing the subject. In response to congressional uproar over an Air Force officer overturning a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case, Hagel reportedly will recommend legislation that would strip military commanders of their ability to reverse the criminal convictions of service members.
The Senate, meanwhile, has agreed to hold its first hearing on military sex crimes in 10 years.
All of which heartens Ellen Maschka, whose own experience was so disheartening.
At 4 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1993, the rapist broke into her home in the 7000 block of Wirt Street, wielding a knife and telling her: “Shut up or I'll kill you.”
He placed a pillow over her face and the knife to her neck and demanded money. Then he blindfolded her with the pillowcase and raped her.
Thomas Freeman eventually was caught and convicted, with the help of the eight victims' testimony — including Ellen's — as well as DNA and fingerprint evidence. He was sentenced to 100 to 200 years.
Ellen was 35 at the time of her attack, divorced and the mother of two. No one else was home.
She said her parents, now deceased, didn't react well. Neither did some friends.
“It was horrible,” she said. “There were a lot of raised eyebrows and innuendoes. Subtle things. I didn't feel any compassion.
“I felt real ashamed because of how people reacted to me. They didn't want to talk to me about it, and so I felt I couldn't talk about it.”
She has received professional counseling, which she said has helped. In the years after her attack, she earned an associate degree in graphic design and a bachelor's degree in marketing.
She worked for several years as a brand design manager for an Omaha corporation. She enjoys her adult children and her four grandchildren.
Ellen has gained hope through meetings of the Hope Advisory Council, affiliated with the Domestic Violence Council.
“It's not a support group,” explained Tara Muir, executive director of the DVC. “People just make connections with each other. We provide space and a time, and a really good facilitator.”
This is the council's first time inviting the public to a movie, and the hope is for a good turnout.
Tara admires Ellen for arranging for the movie and agreeing to moderate a discussion.
“Sharing her story is not an easy thing to do,” she said. “We're hoping to raise awareness and to start building more community around these kinds of events.”
Stranger rapes, such as those endured by Ellen and others, are far less frequent than sexual assaults by someone known to the victim. According to the latest FBI statistics, Tara said, strangers commit about one in seven reported rapes.
A recent case in Steubenville, Ohio, caused a national outcry after a number of local commenters on social media expressed support for two high school football players accused of raping a 16-year-old girl who was drunk at a party.
The boys were found guilty.
Julie Medina, an assistant Douglas County attorney who prosecutes sexual assault cases, says some people, including jurors, think that if a girl or woman gets drunk, whatever happens next is her fault — including rape.
“It's never, ever, the victim's fault,” she has told audiences. “I don't care what you were doing or what you were wearing.”
Medina — herself the survivor of a rape that happened while she was working late in an office in Illinois 16 years ago — is scheduled to take part in Thursday's panel discussion. Other survivors will speak, too.
Tickets to the event are $15, with proceeds donated to Heartland Family Service, the Women's Center for Advancement and the Hope Advisory Council.
“We'll have support people there,” Ellen said, “in case this triggers anything for anyone and they need to leave and talk.”
Unfortunately, she said, we seem to live in “a rape culture” of which too many people are accepting.
“I'm thankful I survived,” she said. “But I think there are people out there who have kept it inside for too long. We just need to talk about it.”
In some ways, things have changed for the better over the years. Fewer people attach a stigma to the rape survivor.
In Omaha, Methodist Hospital offers specialized care for victims of sexual assault at its Heidi Wilke SANE/SART Survivor program. The acronyms stand for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and Sexual Assault Response Team.
After attending a business meeting in downtown Omaha, Heidi survived a stranger rape in 2002. Her attacker was sentenced and convicted, and she and her husband helped raise money for the hospital program, which promises “care, comfort and dignity.”
Twenty years after her own horror, Ellen Maschka will stand up publicly Thursday — a soldier in the cause of supporting rape survivors — and say she is not ashamed. The shame is not on the survivor, but on the rapist.
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