Breaking the silence: Men sexually assaulted in military speak out
Air Force veteran Peter Vouaux, sitting in a house in Baltimore on Oct. 9, 2013, was sexually assaulted in the 1970s while in the military. He's one of a group of men now speaking out about their sexual assaults.
BALTIMORE — Brian Lewis figures he could have dealt with the rape.
It’s the Navy’s response to the attack that still haunts the Baltimore native.
Lewis, the son of a Defense Department civilian who commanded his JROTC battalion in high school, sailed through three years in the Navy and three months aboard the submarine tender USS Frank Cable.
Then, one night on shore in Guam, he was taken out to dinner by a higher-ranking shipmate, a man who had a wife and children. After the meal, he says, his dinner partner pulled out a knife, threatened his life, and sodomized him.
A friend reported the attack, and Lewis was visited by a senior officer on the Cable. He says the officer ordered him not to cooperate with Navy investigators.
Lewis says he did as he was told. The investigation stopped dead. There was no court-martial. His attacker was never punished.
That outcome is typical for male victims of military sexual assault, a Baltimore Sun analysis of hundreds of cases found.
The outrage over sexual assault in the military has focused largely on female service members, and with reason: A woman in uniform is much likelier to be targeted than a man, Pentagon surveys indicate. But because male service members greatly outnumber females, officials believe the majority of sexual assault victims — 53 percent in 2012 — are men.
These men — an estimated 13,900 last year alone — are far less likely than women to report an attack. Only 13 percent of reports last year were filed by men, military data show.
But the disparities do not end there. The Sun found that when men do report a sexual assault, military authorities are less likely to identify a suspect, to refer charges to court-martial or to discharge the perpetrator than in cases in which the victim is a woman.
Critics blame those differences on a military culture they say has been slow to recognize the possibility that men can be raped — and that remains hostile to the victims.
“For young men, the military justice system is the last place they would seek remedy,” says Nancy J. Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a Washington-based advocacy group for sexual assault victims of both genders. “Male victims face more obstacles, more prejudice against them, more disbelief, more efforts to silence and humiliate them.”
Military leaders, under pressure from Congress and the White House to eliminate rape from the ranks, acknowledge that there have been shortcomings in the handling of sexual assault cases over the years. But they say they are doing better. A special Pentagon office has been training troops and commanders in rape prevention, working with prosecutors and encouraging victims to come forward.
Creating conditions in which victims feel confident reporting assaults is key, they say, to punishing more perpetrators. But getting male victims to cooperate with investigators presents a particular challenge.
“You have an environment that values strength and values the warrior ethos,” says Nate Galbreath, the top civilian adviser to the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “And, of course, when any man is sexually assaulted, they really wonder whether or not they fit into this warrior culture. But what we’re trying to get across to men is that warriors not only know how to fight, they also know how to ask for help.”
The Sun spoke with seven former service members who say they were sexually assaulted while in uniform. Those attacks date from the 1970s to as recently as 2009. All described long-lasting impacts, including depression, anxiety, flashbacks, substance abuse and difficulty maintaining employment and relationships. Five said they had attempted suicide — some several times.
“It makes you do a complete about-face in the way that you view the world,” says Lewis, who was 20 when he was assaulted in 2000. “Really, it’s a day-to-night experience.”
Now 34, the large-framed Lewis still carries himself with the bearing of a sailor. He wears his dark hair closely cropped, and speaks in direct and precisely crafted sentences. He lives in Anne Arundel County with Andrew, his partner of five years.
In March, he became the first man to testify before Congress about being sexually assaulted in the military. He is one of a small group of male victims now breaking a decades-long silence.
Speaking out in documentaries, at news conferences and on Capitol Hill, the men say they want the same things that female survivors want: better services for victims, justice for perpetrators, and, ultimately, the elimination of rape from the ranks.
Many want to remove prosecutions for sexual assault from the chain of command — taking the authority to send suspects to court-martial away from commanders and giving it to trained lawyers.
But they also want something more: a change in the way sexual assault is viewed, both inside the military and out. It isn’t a women’s issue, the men say, but a problem that can affect anyone.
That shift in perspective, they say, would benefit male and female service members alike.
Michael F. Matthews, a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, says people have become “complacent” with the idea of a woman being raped. “A lot of times, they blow it off. They say, ‘Yeah, she might be lying, she might have changed her mind afterwards, was she drinking, what was she wearing?’ ”
Matthews, a victim of sexual assault, adds: “All those things get thrown out the window when you start talking about a heterosexual man. I’m not looking to have sex with a guy. It doesn’t matter what I was wearing.
“The public needs to know that. If people understand that this can happen to a guy, then we can dispel some of the myths about what rape is, for men and for women.”
Matthews was walking back from the chow hall at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri one evening in 1974, he says, when someone slipped behind him and knocked him unconscious. When he came to, he says, two airmen were holding him down. A third was sodomizing him.
If it could happen to him, the plain-spoken New Yorker says, it could happen to anyone.
“I did taekwondo and I boxed,” says Matthews, now 59, married and living in New Mexico. “And guess what? Everybody’s vulnerable. … They can slip something in your drink. They can knock you out from behind. They can jump you from in front — depends on how many guys they got. You can’t fend off three people.”
The accounts of Matthews, Lewis and the other men in this article could not be independently verified. Military officials said they could not comment on the individual allegations but acknowledge that such assaults have occurred. The military justice system has convicted perpetrators in similar attacks.
Greg Jeloudov’s mistake was being different. Born and raised in Russia, he lived for years in Ireland, which gave his English a distinctive hybrid accent. Before he joined the Army, he worked as an actor (he had a small role in the Mel Gibson film “Braveheart”). By the time he enlisted in 2009, he was older than many of his fellow recruits.
When Jeloudov arrived for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., he says, the taunting began immediately: “You commie fag, you Russian fag. You actors, you’re all faggots.”
And then, the chilling warning: “We’re going to teach you a lesson.”
Two weeks into basic training, Jeloudov says, he was gang-raped.
“I go and try to explain it to one of the commanders. He just said, ‘Why did you tell them about the acting? Why did you tell them anything about Russia? This would never have happened if you had kept your mouth shut.’ So I’m to blame.”
Jeloudov was asked if he knew the names of his attackers. He didn’t.
He says he was told the assault must not have happened.
“From that point on,” says Jeloudov, 39, now homeless in San Francisco, “there was no point in saying anything.”
When a man alleged a sexual assault, wrongful sexual contact and forcible sodomy were the charges most frequently investigated.
Military data show that the typical perpetrator is a man who has served longer in the military than his victim and holds a higher rank. In most cases, the assailant identifies as heterosexual.
Roger Canaff, who has trained Army lawyers in prosecuting sexual assault cases, says many attacks amount to a particularly violent form of hazing.
It “isn’t necessarily seen as a sexual act,” says Canaff, a former prosecutor in New York and Virginia. “It’s seen as a humiliating act. It’s the ultimate act of emasculation.
“You see that in fraternity life, sometimes. You see that in the civilian world. The military has it also.”
Heath Phillips endured months of such harassment. Seventeen when he entered the Navy from a small town in upstate New York, he was everyone’s little brother at boot camp in the Orlando Naval Training Center in Florida and at advanced training in Meridian, Miss.
But when he went to the ammunition ship USS Butte at Naval Weapons Station Earle in New Jersey in 1988, he drew a different kind of attention.
“My first night, there’s a group of men — ‘Hey, why don’t you come hang out with us?’ you know? And I thought, ‘Cool.’ ”
He says he went with them to a hotel in New York City. Phillips had two drinks — “I really wasn’t much of a drinker” — and passed out.
“I woke up with my clothes pulled down, guys doing stuff to me, guys masturbating on my face. Instant terror.”
Crying, he locked himself in the bathroom. His shipmates told him they were only kidding, it was an initiation, they all went through it.
Phillips says reporting the assault only brought more assaults. After returning to the Butte, he told a senior leader what had happened — and was told he was lying.
“Everything escalated from there,” he says. “It turned to ‘game on,’ you know? ‘Oh, look, we didn’t get in trouble, they didn’t believe him.’
“It was a constant harassment. These guys would terrorize me daily,” including pulling him out of bed and rubbing their genitals in his face. “And I was always called liar.”
Phillips, Jeloudov and Lewis were unusual in at least trying to report their assaults. Matthews, like most, didn’t bother.
“I knew nothing good was going to come of it,” he says. “I wanted to spend 20 years in the Air Force. I wasn’t going to be able to make a career out of it if I came forward.”
Men in the military outnumber women by more than 5 to 1. The Pentagon estimates that thousands of men experience unwanted sexual contact each year, but only 380 reported an assault in 2012.
Of those, just 247 sought a criminal investigation.
When there is an investigation, cases with male victims are less likely to be sent to court-martial, The Sun found. Of investigations completed in 2012 into assaults on men, 28 percent resulted in sex offense charges being sent to a court-martial. For women, the figure was 42 percent.
One reason for that disparity is the greater reluctance of male victims to cooperate with investigators, the data show.
Sexual assault survivors, advocates and military officials say victims of both genders confront several barriers to reporting and assisting with an investigation: embarrassment or shame, skepticism about whether their attackers will be punished, and concern about the impact on their own careers.
Terri Spahr Nelson, author of “For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military,” says male victims face an additional obstacle: gender expectations in a culture that celebrates the strong, stoic warrior.
“It’s definitely different for men,” says Nelson, a social worker and sometime Pentagon consultant who served in the Army during the early 1980s. “For men coming forward in the military and being able to report a sexual assault, they’re really having to cross that pretty heavy barrier of not being seen as weak — or even, in some cases, being accused of being homosexual.”
After Lewis was attacked, he returned to work on the Frank Cable. But everything had changed. Word of the incident had spread, he says, and he “quickly became the social outcast.”
“It’s almost like a virus people are afraid they’ll catch,” he says. “And they want to avoid it, because they see what’s happening to you.”
Lewis became paranoid. He took to carrying a knife. Commanders noted a decline in his performance and stripped him of the technical qualifications he needed to continue working on the ship.
Lewis likens sexual assault in the military to incest. In the early days, he had to continue seeing his perpetrator — “there’s only so many places to run inside a 600-foot ship” — as fellow sailors took sides.
“There were even some isolated pockets of ‘This guy has a family — why are you trying to wreck his life?’ ”
Eventually, Lewis was removed from the ship for medical treatment. A Navy psychiatrist in San Diego decided he was lying about the assault, he says, and sent him back to work on limited duty.
“I began a long downward spiral,” Lewis says. “I was walking the piers and looking at ships all day and wondering where the next attack would come from.”
Finally, the psychiatrist diagnosed him with a personality disorder. On the first anniversary of the attack, he was given a general discharge — a less-than-honorable designation that meant he could not receive tuition aid and other G.I. benefits.
Canaff says a commander confronted with allegations of an attack within his or her unit can face a conflict of interest.
The accused is often a higher-ranking, longer-serving, more experienced member with significant responsibilities within the command. The victim is often a newer, younger member with less training and less responsibility.
“You end up getting victims that are often perceived to be of less value to the military,” Canaff says.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called sexual assault “a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force” that “must be stamped out.”
Hagel meets weekly with the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which officials say is working to prevent attacks on both men and women and to ensure that assailants are punished.
Galbreath, who joined the office in 2007, describes a sea change in the military’s efforts since then — particularly during the past two years under Hagel and his predecessor, Leon Panetta.
“I’ve heard Brian Lewis’ account and what he had to go through, and it just breaks my heart that in the years that he served, there just wasn’t this kind of program available for him,” says Galbreath, a criminal investigator turned clinical psychologist. “I would offer that if Brian had experienced sexual assault in the military today, his experience would be fundamentally different.”
Today, Galbreath says, a service member who is assaulted is assigned a victim advocate to guide him or her through the system, and, beginning this year, a special victims’ counsel — a trained attorney to represent him or her in any legal proceedings.
The Pentagon office is training enlisted personnel on recognizing and stopping rape, and teaching commanders how to respond to allegations. The office also has worked with prosecutors and stepped up outreach to victims.
Another key development: The 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Officials and advocates believe the ban on openly gay service members chilled reporting by male victims, gay and straight alike.
Galbreath says the Pentagon’s efforts have led to an increase in reports. More than 3,550 sexual assaults were reported during the first three quarters of the 2013 fiscal year, the Pentagon said last month, a jump of nearly 50 percent. Galbreath expects further gains from the special victims’ counsel program.
Victims and their advocates say that program and other steps are positive, but don’t go far enough. They say the small percentages of victims who report and convictions that result argue for comprehensive change.
“Things remain very bad,” says Baltimore attorney Susan Burke, who represents dozens of sexual assault victims, male and female, in actions against the military. “Until you create an impartial judicial system, you continue to empower the wrong people. The biases and corruption persist.”
Burke and others want Congress to take prosecutions out of the chain of command — where a commander has the sole authority to refer charges to court-martial or not, and to uphold the jury’s findings or ignore them.
“The system is rigged in favor of the assailant,” says Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “So much so that you have the vast majority, a supermajority of the victims not reporting it, which means the assailants, sexual predators, continue to operate on other people.”
Speier has championed legislation that would give trained attorneys — not commanders — the authority to investigate alleged sexual assaults, pursue charges and order sanctions.
“Because the system is closed, commanders make the rules,” she says. “And men are supposed to be tough and suck it up, and there’s even less interest to provide services or take their cases seriously.”
The effort has run into opposition from military leaders and their supporters in Congress. The Democratic-controlled Senate declined to take up the issue last week.
Speier describes her campaign in the Republican-controlled House as “a marathon, not a sprint.” Military leaders say the authority to send troops under their command to court-martial is an essential tool for maintaining good order and discipline.
“We should try to fix this through the commander, and not around them,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June.
After his discharge, Lewis returned home to Brooklyn Park and, in his words, “wasted my life away.” He let his hair grow, gained weight, cut himself.
“I just generally didn’t care whether I lived from one moment to the next,” he says.
Such feelings are common among sexual assault survivors of both genders, says Sara Nett, the military sexual trauma coordinator at Baltimore VA Medical Center. Male victims also struggle with questions about their strength, their control, their sexuality.
“Suddenly, they have this big conflict on their hands,” she says. “And they start to question their masculinity, the way they were presenting to other people, if people got the wrong impression.”
Nett, a clinical psychologist, started a group at the Baltimore VA this year for male sexual assault victims. Four or five participants meet twice a month. She sees patients suffering from anxiety, fear of being in unfamiliar places or around unfamiliar people, difficulties with relationships, substance abuse, thoughts of suicide.
“The lasting impacts can be really broad,” she says.
Peter J. Vouaux sees his assault as the hinge on which his life turned. The son of an Air Force officer, he joined the service in 1974 with a knack for working with his hands and a dream of becoming an engineer.
But at Edwards Air Force Base in California, he says, he ran afoul of a senior leader, and the trouble began. Fellow airmen harassed him; he found urine and feces in his belongings.
One night, he says, a group of airmen pulled him from a movie theater off base, dragged him out to the desert and raped him.
He says he spent the next 15 years drunk and high. He bounced from job to job. He suffered flashbacks from the attack. He abused cocaine, LSD, heroin.
Vouaux, now 57, eventually got help through the VA, he says, and has been sober since 1991. But he still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffers flashbacks; he feels anxious in crowds.
He has worked intermittently, most recently cleaning the jetways at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport. He has a room in a boarding house near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.
There was a time, he says, when he believed he had control over his life. The assault put an end to that.
“It’s like, instead of running on all four cylinders, I’m running on one,” he says. “My family can’t figure it out. They see who I am, which is this talented, intelligent person, but they can’t put the two together. ‘Why does he end up in a homeless shelter? He can’t keep a job. He can’t do this. He can’t do that.’
“I’m not able to be the person I want to be.”
From Brooklyn Park, Lewis has emerged as a leading national voice on the sexual assault of men in the military.
Lewis was one of several former service members who testified before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel in support of taking prosecutions out of the chain of command.
He appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War,” about assaults of men and women, and “Justice Denied,” co-produced by Matthews’ wife, which focuses on men.
Lewis also serves as an advisory board member for Protect Our Defenders. This year he co-founded Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma, or Mr. MST — the first support and advocacy group specifically for male survivors.
And he has returned to school. He earned a master’s degree in forensic studies from Stevenson University this month and is set to begin law school next fall. Upon graduation, he says, he wants to work on behalf of service members and veterans.
“From 2001 to the beginning of 2008, I just wasted my life away because I just couldn’t get it through my head that there had to be something better waiting,” he says.
“This is better. Advocating is better.”