Same-sex military assault survivors speak out

  • by James Patterson
  • Tuesday June 25, 2013
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A California lawmaker predicted a "donnybrook on the Senate floor" over military sexual assault incidents as legislation aimed at taking such cases out of military jurisdiction failed last week at a time when politicians and survivors said a record 26,000 incidences �" 14,000 involving male victims �" led to only 3,374 reported cases in 2012, and have reached an epidemic level that poses a threat to national security.

California Senator Barbara Boxer (D) co-authored the Military Justice Improvement Act with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) to take sexual assault prosecutions outside the military justice system. Despite powerhouse testimony from four assault survivors and months of political debate, the bill failed in the Armed Services Committee.

On Boxer's website, assault survivors tell their emotional stories "to draw attention to the epidemic of sexual assault in the military."

The Senate defeat may not be the last word on the legislation. Boxer, on an MSNBC video accessible from her website, predicted there would be "a donnybrook on the Senate floor" over the issue.

Representative Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) offered similar legislation in the House, H.R. 3435, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act. The legislation has 145 co-sponsors and has been referred to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

When President Barack Obama addressed the graduating class at the U.S. Naval Academy in May, he said, "Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong."

According to a report by the Defense Department, at, incidences of sexual assault in the military were 26,000 in 2012 compared to 19,300 in 2010. The 2012 report said only 3,374 cases were reported.

What is behind the sexual assault epidemic in the military and the increased incidence of same-sex cases? A former spokesman for a Washington, D.C., LGBT military advocacy group had an answer.

"Before repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' same-sex sexual assaults were often underreported due to fear coming forward could result in discharge," said Zeke Stokes, who until last weekend was a spokesman for OutServe-SLDN.

(The board of OutServe-SLDN reportedly forced out Executive Director Allyson Robinson over the weekend; several staff and board members resigned in protest, according to media reports and the organization's website. The interview with Stokes was conducted before his resignation.)

With DADT now gone, "numbers are rising because more people are reporting what was really happening all along," Stokes said. "Sexual assault is a crime of violence, domination, and power. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with this epidemic."


Survivors' stories

The Bay Area Reporter talked with three sexual assault survivors about their experience and its impact on their health.

In most cases, survivors say, they were discharged for personality disorders. Later diagnoses revealed post-traumatic stress disorder. As survivors worked with therapists on PTSD, military sexual trauma was determined to have caused PTSD, they said.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, MST is "sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurred while the veteran was in the military."

MST includes "threats of negative personnel actions against someone for not agreeing to sex, unwanted sexual touching or grabbing; threatening, offensive remarks about a person's body or sexual activities; and/or threatening or unwelcome sexual advances."

"Both women and men can experience MST during their service," the website said. Recognizing the sensitivity of veterans and traditional military non-reporting of MST, the VA advises survivors "not need to have reported the incident(s) when they happened or have other documentation that they occurred" to receive VA treatment.

Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit based in Burlingame, California, represents service members who have been raped or sexually assaulted. The group works to improve the "investigation and adjudication systems related to sexual violence and harassment."

A common problem, MST survivors told the B.A.R. , is that they encountered commanding officers who refused to report sexual assaults and, if a report was made, the assault was contained in the chain of command and alleged rapists went free while victims suffered retaliation.

"Congress must face reality. For justice to prevail, you must end commanders' unfettered authority over the legal aspects of military justice. Nothing less will end the damaging cycle of scandal and continued incidence [of sexual assault]," Nancy Parish, POD president and a longtime human rights activist, said in a statement.

Filmmaker Michael Miller

(Photo: Courtesy Michael Miller/

9 Point Productions)

The issue led New Mexico filmmaker Michael Miller, owner of 9 Point Productions, to direct and co-produce the 72-minute film, Justice Denied. In the documentary 13 sexual assault survivors relate their stories.

The film is "about all sexual assault, of which same-sex sexual assault is a major component," Miller, 64, said in an email.

The film, which cost $15,000, premiered at the Albuquerque Film and Media Experience in early June. Miller hopes the film will influence Congress to take action to stop military sex assaults. He said no Department of Defense officials appear in the film.

Miller, who said he was a Vietnam veteran who has lived with PTSD for 30 years, said he made the film because "it was time to hear men's voices" in the fight against sexual assault in the military.

"This is not a gay issue, it is a criminal issue," Miller said. "[Sexual assault] is about power, aggression and domination." It is not about sex, he said. "Sex is a tool to empower the perpetrator."

The military response to sexual assault is common, Miller said. After a service member is assaulted, oftentimes by a superior officer or someone else of higher rank in their direct chain of command, commanders order victims not to pursue the matter.

Later, as word circulates in their units, the climate gets hostile and survivors get discharged for personality disorders that military physicians claimed were a preexisting condition and survivors are often denied their military benefits.

Miller said his goals for making Justice Denied included educating the public on the subject, letting survivors know they are not alone, and getting legislation passed to change the way military prosecutions are managed.

"Sexual assault is a national security issue," Miller said. "It weakens the military effectiveness of our fighting forces."

Michael Matthews, one of the same-sex sexual assault survivors depicted in Justice Denied, said he conceptualized the film. His wife, Geri Lynn Weinstein-Matthews, a social worker, is producer and co-director.

The New Mexico couple has been active with the MST community for 13 years, Matthews said.

"My intention [for the film] was to seek out men from different service eras, ethnicities, stories, abilities, challenges and life experiences," Weinstein-Matthews explained. "There is way more to this issue [MST] than is known publicly."

Matthews, who is straight, said he was raped at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, in 1974 at age 19. He was attacked from behind and never saw his three assailants. After the rape, he said he was severely beaten.

When fellow service members asked Matthews about his injuries, he told them he had been in a bar fight.

Matthews did not report his rape for fear he would be discharged. He also could not identify the rapists, as he never saw them. He also feared he would be labeled gay by his fellow service members and commanders.

"It was illegal to be gay in 1974," he said, referring to military rules then in place.

Matthews served 12 years in the Air Force and a final eight years in the Air Force reserves. He suffered with undiagnosed PTSD for years and had attempted suicide six times before he was diagnosed by a VA therapist in 2002. His PTSD diagnosis included an MST diagnosis. He said he is now disabled due to physical limitations and unable to work.

Matthews steeps himself in military statistics on sexual assaults. He searches the VA website, Defense Department reports, and other government sources for data on the subject. He said there were 35 suicides of male veterans daily. He said 12 percent were from combat and 88 percent were unknown, but he suspects they are PTSD related.

"The military covers up cases of same-sex sexual assault," Matthews said. It would hurt recruitment, he said, if the public were aware of the extent of sexual assault in the military.

"President Obama recognizes what I have been saying for years that sexual assault in the military is a national security problem," he said.

Of Justice Denied Matthews said it was "pretty raw." He said the film opens with a warning statement and counselors have been available at screenings.

He estimated 98 percent of all military rapes were by heterosexual men with "control" issues. Only 2 percent, he said, were by others, including women and gays.


Wendy May is the survivor of a military sexual assault and appears in the film, Justice Denied.(Photo: Courtesy 9 Point Productions)

Trans woman's story

Wendy May is another subject in the film. She is a transgender woman who was living as a man at the time she enlisted in the Army at age 18 in 1980.

After a basic training injury at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, May was chained and "viciously raped over and over again" by four drill sergeants.

"I did not see it coming," May recalled of the assault. She, too, was attacked from behind. May said the drill sergeant ripped off her clothes and pulled her underwear down. May "blacked out" during the attack.

"It was a power and control issue more than sexuality," she said, adding that her assailant did not know she was a transgender woman.

May said she reported the assault to her commanding officer and he told her, "My men would never do something like this."

May was honorably discharged for personality disorder. She said she has had to fight for her veterans benefits.

May was eventually diagnosed with PTSD due to MST. Her symptoms included depression, suicidal ideation, flashbacks, and nightmares. The rape seriously impacted her life, her relationships, and her ability to work.

Now living in New Jersey, May, 51, is an online student at Kaplan University where she is pursuing a degree in fire science and emergency management. She is also involved in politics and is a longtime advocate in the LGBT community.

For MST survivors, May said it is important to talk with someone about the assault immediately.

"We in the MST community know that MST can and does affect a person's physical and mental health, even many years later," she said in an email.


Navy veteran Brian K. Lewis testified before a Senate subcommittee.

(Photo: Courtesy Brian K. Lewis)

Gay man testifies

POD advocacy board member Brain K. Lewis, a Navy veteran who is gay, is another MST survivor featured in Justice Denied . He is also the first male MST survivor to testify before Congress, when he appeared before Gillibrand's armed services subcommittee on personnel in March.

Lewis testified that in August 2000, he "was raped by a superior non-commissioned officer" and "ordered by my command not to report the crime." A military psychiatrist told Lewis he had a personality disorder and discharged him in August 2001. Later, the VA gave him a 100 percent disability rating for PTSD.

"The predator asked me to dinner," Lewis recalled. He said he was attacked and beaten on a remote Naval station and received no medical attention for his injuries.

A fellow shipmate reported the assault for Lewis. Though Lewis confirmed the assault, he was ordered not to report it for investigation.

As a result of the assault, Lewis had performance issues, including distrustfulness, concerns for his safety, and anger. Lewis received medical care at a Naval hospital in Guam where he was diagnosed with PTSD caused by sexual assault. Such a diagnosis is uncommon, he said.

On duty, Lewis said he experienced secondary victimization in the form of abuse from his commanders and fellow officers. He was increasingly isolated from his shipmates and stripped of his qualifications. He called this a "culture of retaliation."

"The current publicity on military sexual assaults is 50 years overdue," Lewis said. He said he had met MST survivors from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts.

Of his Senate testimony, Lewis said the hardest part was recalling his secondary victimization by commanders and fellow officers.

He noted another important point about his testimony. Gillibrand let the four MST survivors testify before hearing from military officials. This meant the officials had to sit in the hearing room and listen to the sexual assault testimony.

Yet no Navy official, Lewis said, has reached out to help him even after being in the same room with the chief of naval operations and the judge advocate general of the Navy.

Lewis said his testimony gave him "a renewed purpose" to his work. Still, he said he "labors with the injustice" of what happened to him.

He said he participated in Justice Denied because male MST survivors had been ignored for too long.

"Most resources for recovery are geared for women survivors," Lewis said in an email. "Even in the VA, men do not have access to all-male residential recovery programs specifically addressing MST."

Lewis said the VA hospital in Baltimore only recently started a male MST outpatient support group. "Not all VA hospitals offer such support," he said.

For those who experience MST, Lewis encouraged survivors to speak out. "There will be help as long as you speak up," he said.

Lewis is also working with other survivors to establish a nonprofit geared specifically for male survivors of MST. The group, Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma, has a Facebook page at

He plans to go to Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota next fall.

"I hope to practice veterans and military law as a way to give back to the veteran's community what was freely given to me," he said.

In a statement issued last week to MST survivors and other supporters of her legislation, Boxer said of its defeat, "[T]he pleas from brave [MST] survivors," were ignored.

Of the legislation's defeat, Lewis said it "is a slap in the face to all survivors." He is hopeful other legislation will be successful at "removing sex crimes from the military chain of command."

Boxer agrees with Lewis.

"We are not backing down in our fight to take these decisions out of the chain of command," Boxer said.

That was good news to Lewis, who said, "Senator Boxer's determination to do the right thing on behalf of [MST] survivors is heartwarming and very much appreciated."