Heath Phillips, now 47, holds up a photo of himself in the Navy at 17. (Francois Pesant)

The first time Heath Phillips told his superiors that he had been sexually assaulted, he was called a liar and a homesick mama’s boy.

It was 1988 and Phillips, then 17, had just joined the Navy. There were six attackers, he said, and yet in a Navy ship as large as his, where privacy could be found neither in the showers nor in the rows of bunk beds, nobody bothered to help.

Not even his superiors, who didn’t believe him.

He filed complaint after complaint for 49 days straight as the sexual assaults and harassment continued.

“It was like they were pretending it wasn’t happening,” he told The Washington Post.

He tried to commit suicide once, and he went AWOL multiple times. Then, in 1989, he was discharged as “other than honorable” because of his unauthorized absences.

For years afterward, Phillips said he felt as if the Navy continued pretending none of it ever happened, as he continued to be denied mental health services from Veterans Affairs. The Navy repeatedly denied his requests for a discharge status upgrade to “honorable,” even as Phillips continued to insist that he was assaulted.

But then last week his phone rang. His attorney was calling with the news Phillips thought he would never hear. On Phillips’s fourth attempt, the Board for Correction of Naval Records agreed to discharge him honorably.

Finally, the Navy said it believed him.

“This was not news I was anticipating, because I’ve lost three other times,” Phillips said, “and the last three denials sent back to me never discussed the sexual assaults. They never discussed why I went AWOL. It was always I did something wrong. That’s how they always played it. So actually reading it this time, seeing that they substantiated my claims after all these years. …”

He paused to try to think of words to explain how he felt but couldn’t. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s very overwhelming.”

In its letter, the board wrote: “The Board found Petitioner’s contention of military sexual trauma to be valid, and noted that Petitioner’s periods of unauthorized absences after reporting to the USS Butte were mitigated by the abuse, harassment, and assault he suffered.”

According to the Department of Defense, more than 6,700 service members filed complaints of sexual assault in 2017, but the department estimates that the true number of incidents is significantly higher. Of the cases investigated by the department, only 284 resulted in convictions, rather than administrative discipline or dismissal.

“This is what the military still is not getting: For so many women and men, it’s a career-ender to report,” Col. Don Christensen, a 23-year Air Force veteran and president of the nonprofit Protect Our Defenders, said of the fear of retaliation that service members face. “You can’t expect people to continually come forward” if they are punished after doing so, he said.

After being discharged from the Navy, it would be 20 years before Phillips turned into the firebrand advocate for military sexual assault survivors that he is now.

He fell into alcoholism immediately, and even as he became a father he couldn’t seem to come out of the haze. He would go to the bar rather than to his son’s ballgame. He still had nightmares and flashbacks about being sodomized with a shampoo bottle or a toilet brush handle. But he couldn’t get mental health help from VA, he said, because he wasn’t honorably discharged. And he couldn’t consistently afford it from a private provider because he couldn’t hold down a steady job for long durations, either.

He tried for the first time to upgrade his status in 2003, to fix all of this, but when he lost he didn’t fight it. “Instead I just drank,” he said.

Everything changed for Phillips, though, once he started making connections with other assault survivors. He did not realize just how many there were.

He started finding them on the Internet and then started reaching out to them. Small talk first, then the heavy burdens. A group of them met in Washington, becoming instant family, and Phillips never turned back. He has been sober since 2009.

“From 1989 to 2009, I thought I was the only victim,” he said. “I didn’t think this happened to anybody else. Finding out I wasn’t alone changed a lot of perspective for me. And I did not want anybody else to live the life that I lived.”

Eventually, he connected with lawmakers such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who have each told Phillips’s story from the floor while pushing for bipartisan legislation intended to confront military sexual trauma.

On one such occasion, Gillibrand stressed the need to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would forward sexual assault complaints to independent military prosecutors for review rather than up the chain of command, where superiors may disregard them, as in Phillips’s case.

“I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else and that people like Heath aren’t forced to choose between their mental health and the benefits they have earned from the United States government,” Gillibrand said.

Since meeting the other sexual abuse survivors and with lawmakers for the first time several years ago, Phillips said he has been traveling around the country to meet with service members. He speaks in front of large groups of them at military bases of all branches, and he tells his story over and over, hoping some in the crowd won’t feel so alone.

“It makes me feel like I’m somebody again,” he said.

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