On the morning Brian Lewis finally felt vindicated, he and his partner were up before dawn making sure his suit was perfectly wrinkle-free, his pins affixed at mirror spots on each lapel. One declared him a life member of the Disabled American Veterans, the other a Freemason who is also a U.S. Navy veteran. They were hardly the jumble of multicolor insignia seen on the chests of most of the military, active and retired, who usually make appearances such as the one he was about to, but many would argue Lewis’ were equally hard-won.
Lewis and Andy Beauchene boarded the 6 a.m. train from Baltimore and made small talk to calm their nerves as the waking suburbs flitted by along the 45-minute ride. They’d grab a quick breakfast at the Johnny Rockets in the basement of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station before walking under a cloudy winter sky the few blocks to the Hart Senate Office Building. It was March 2013.
Lewis made his introductions to the folks who had selected and prepped him for what he was about to do, chatted briefly with the Navy’s top lawyer and others, then sat in the front row beside Beauchene. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, tapped a button to turn on her microphone and brought the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel to order. Gillibrand, just two months into her tenure as chair, commenced the panel’s hearings into sexual assault in the military with an eight-minute opening statement of earnest outrage before yielding the floor to two colleagues to offer theirs.
More than 20 minutes later, Lewis and three women were asked to the witness table, where he settled his hulking frame into a leather chair and opened a black folder. Visibly nervous, he kept his eyes trained on a printout of the prepared testimony he was about to deliver, the photographers perched like kindergartners on the floor in front of him clicking their cameras.
“We have Brian Lewis, former petty officer third class, U.S. Navy. Brian enlisted in the U.S. Navy in June of 1997,” Gillibrand read evenly to introduce him. “During his tour aboard USS Frank Cable, AS-40, he was raped by a superior noncommissioned officer and forced to go back out to sea after the assault.”
Lewis wasn’t the first member of the U.S. military to describe in a congressional hearing the trauma of rape. He wasn’t even the first that day. But Lewis’ presence was novel in an important way that he had waited a long time to proclaim. He leaned forward to the tip of the cantilevered mic and began.
“Chairwoman Gillibrand and Ranking Member Graham, members of the subcommittee, thank you for holding this hearing today on sexual assault in our military. I am humbled to be sitting here today before you as the first male survivor to testify in front of Congress on this very important issue, and thank you for allowing that privilege to me.”
Lewis could have stopped there, and his testimony would have been momentous enough. In the history of the American military, with its countless millions of men who have served and died, this had never happened before? After all, hearings into sexual misconduct—and waves of outrage over the military’s problematic management of the problem in general—are nearly as annual as cherry blossoms in Washington.
Across all those years, as scandals from Tailhook to Aberdeen to Lackland have erupted, one obvious fact must have been evident to, and ignored by, anybody who cared: There are nearly six times as many men than women serving in uniform today, and, ergo, the history of the American armed services is littered with untold thousands of male survivors of sexual attacks. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), at least, has had illuminating data about the problem for more than a decade: in 2003 alone, more than 30,000 of its male outpatients answered in the affirmative when asked if they had suffered what the VHA terms “military sexual trauma” (MST). By 2010, the number had grown to nearly 50,000—almost equal to the number of women who said they had suffered MST.
The VHA now reports that about 1 in 100 men seen at VHA hospitals have experienced MST. The proportion is exponentially higher for women service members (about 1 in 5), but it had to be self-evident that male survivors were a substantial population. (While definitions for “sexual trauma” vary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2012 that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men reported having been raped in their lives, and 1 in 20 women and men had experienced “sexual violence other than rape.” These figures suggest the rates of sexual assault in the military are similar to those in the general population.)
Last year, in releasing survey data, the Department of Defense finally put raw numbers to the comparison: Of an estimated 26,000 service members who were targets of sexual assaults in 2012, fifty-four percent were men. That’s 14,000 male survivors—in one year. Over all, only about 3,000 sexual assaults were reported, and 302 were prosecuted in military court. Of those reports, women filed 88 percent. Of the 380 men who did report, 247 asked for an investigation, and just 28 percent of those went to court-martial.
And so, until 2013, until Senator Gillibrand called forward this baby-faced man with sad eyes barely hiding a trauma on endless loop in his mind, not a single male victim of sexual assault in the military, of which there had been hundreds of thousands, had ever appeared before Congress.
The issue of sexual assault in the military has been around for decades, flaring up in the 1990s with the Tailhook scandal, in which Naval and Marine Corps officers assaulted dozens of women and some men at a convention in Las Vegas, and again when a dozen Army officers were accused of sexually abusing and harassing female trainees at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Even after various secretaries of defense and presidents vowed changes throughout the subsequent decade, the matter returned to the front pages in 2011 when more than 40 female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio accused 17 male instructors of sexual crimes.
Within a year of being appointed to replace New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in early 2009 after Clinton became secretary of state, Gillibrand became instrumental in cosponsoring and pushing through the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. DADT, a compromise passed in 1993 following an outcry over newly elected President Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to end the military’s ban on gays in the service, permitted gays to serve in the military as long as they concealed their sexual orientation.
Gillibrand had little background in military issues and did not make it a signature cause during her two-plus years in the House (although she served on the House Armed Services Committee). Her résumé—daughter of a wealthy and politically connected upstate New York clan; Dartmouth, UCLA Law; cut her legal teeth defending Philip Morris in tobacco litigation; member of the Democrats’ fiscally conservative, hawkish Blue Dog Coalition—hardly indicated that she would make repealing DADT a central cause of her first term in the Senate.
Yet in doing so, Gillibrand found a new voice and earned cross-aisle credibility. As the upper chamber was becoming ever more embittered, aged, and entrenched, the 42-year-old and then-youngest senator plunged forth with a carefully crafted argument to conservatives: With two wars under way, and the military relaxing its recruitment standards and forcing combat-weary service members into repeated reenlistment and additional tours of duty, expelling any qualified, hardworking war fighters was bad for national security.
In making repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ a central cause of her first term, Gillibrand found a new voice and earned cross-aisle credibility.
Gillibrand may have had a low profile on military issues when she arrived in the Senate, but her active involvement in the DADT Repeal Act that passed in December 2010—“Gillibrand worked this issue much harder than most of her colleagues and all of her efforts helped ensure [the] result,” Capital New York wrote at the time—fed her appetite. Then, last February, she says, she screened the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary The Invisible War—a landmark film exposing the dangers of sexual assault in the service and the elusive, often impossible path to justice the military provides. Lewis makes a 10-second appearance, one of only two male survivors to appear in the film in a controversial decision director Kirby Dick admitted to NBC News was made because “we felt the entry point in this discussion was…women being assaulted because we felt it was a discussion that people would start to have.”
Gillibrand’s reaction was visceral. Speaking in late November in her Senate office, where a collection of ceremonial coins veterans of various military units have given her is prominently displayed at the forefront of her broad oak desk, Gillibrand said she went from “0 to 150 in a moment. I thought those stories were so heart-wrenching, I was in tears. I was furious. It enraged me that men and women who will literally die for this country were treated so badly. Not just by their perpetrator but by the system.” The senator, a woman pulsing with natural good cheer that somehow does not overshadow her intensity on the sensitive and controversial topic, began reading survivor accounts. One of them was particularly horrific to her as a mother of two sons.
“One night, they beat him and raped him with a Coke bottle, and said to him, ‘We can’t wait to get you to Iraq. We’re going to rape you every day, and we’re gonna put a bullet in your head,’” she recounted. “When he reported this to his commander, his commander said, ‘It’s your own fault. I’m not going to do anything.’ When I heard that story, I could imagine my skinny young boys, if they joined the military, perhaps being targeted, because they’re too skinny, too young, whatever it happens to be. But for his commander to have such a disregard of his well-being, to value him so little, to say, ‘It’s your own fault; you deserve what you get,’ I find intolerable.”
Perhaps because of her age and background, Gillibrand didn’t look at the problem as an affront primarily to women. Some of her counterparts in the Senate—Barbara Boxer, Claire McCaskill, and Barbara Mikulski—had raised their own ire over the issue, but the rhetoric of feminism, whose battles they had been on the front lines of in one way or another, often seeped into their speeches. As recently as November, McCaskill, rising for an eight-minute speech on the issue that never noted the large number of male survivors, ended with the declaration, “No one is going to be able to turn a victim away from her day in justice.”
McCaskill, in that instance, spoke in support of a litany of reforms she had proposed, which would pass, 84–15, the following month. Those changes, which Gillibrand and MST activists also supported as improvements to the military justice system as it pertains to sex crimes, nonetheless fell short of Gillibrand’s efforts: She has introduced legislation that would move the decision to prosecute sexual assaults away from commanders to independent military lawyers.
“We believe what passed are good steps, but overall reform of the structure is needed,” said Susan Burke, an attorney who has filed several class-action lawsuits on behalf of MST survivors against the military (including two still pending). “The system places adjuratory power in the hands of people who have an inherent bias—the commanders. Judicial systems operate better when decision makers are impartial and strangers to the parties. The best justice is blind justice.”
McCaskill started out open to the concept now known as the Gillibrand Amendment, but she turned against it as military leaders insisted that removing commanders from the decision to prosecute threatened their authority and ability to maintain order and discipline in their units. “We believe that the only way to hold command accountable is to make them responsible, not to completely remove their responsibility,” the Missouri Democrat said at a July press conference. “We believe that’s a recipe for disaster.”
The Gillibrand Amendment remains controversial, and its future is in doubt; she expects to get a vote on it soon, though expected Senate action in this direction was apparently postponed earlier this month. She has a broad range of support that includes unlikely allies such as Tea Party–affiliated Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Burke said the coalition makes more sense if you realize Gillibrand, Cruz, Paul, and many of the other supporters are relative newcomers to the Senate and, thus, are more open to “the more far-reaching reforms.”
And despite McCaskill’s repeated insistence that commanders never overrule prosecutors who want to pursue a court-martial, an Associated Press report this week on weak punishments meted out in hundreds of cases at a Navy base in Okinawa also found two rape cases in which commanders had shut down legal proceedings. “This investigation shows disturbing evidence that there are some military commanders who do, in fact, refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “The men and women of our military deserve…to have unbiased, trained military prosecutors reviewing their cases and making decisions based solely on the merits of the evidence in a transparent way.”
Before AP's revelations cast doubt on assurances that the Gillibrand Amendment was unnecessary, the National Journal reported in January that Gillibrand had started to doubt she could get the 60 votes needed to bring the measure to a vote. Just this week, after being stuck at 53 since November, Gillibrand ticked up to 54 thanks to support from the new senator from Montana, John Walsh, a retired Army commander who replaced Max Baucus after Baucus' confirmation as U.S. ambassador to China. Still, that’s six short.
A year ago, though, few thought Gillibrand could come even that close. She just started where all senators start, by jockeying for a plum subcommittee chair and plotting to hold hearings.
“I wanted survivors’ voices to be heard first—not generals, not commanders. I wanted survivors to be heard, so they could tell us what happened,” she said. “And I wanted to hear from men too.”
The Brian Lewis who joined the Navy in 1997 was a skinny, happy-go-lucky teen raised in the Baltimore area by a mother who worked at the Pentagon as a civil servant and a grandmother who had moved the family in the 1970s from West Virginia coal country for what would be a lifelong job at the defense contractor Westinghouse. He’d taken to the military with ease, climbing to battalion commander of his junior ROTC program in high school. In those relatively peaceful pre-9/11 days, Lewis was drawn to the Navy less out of a burning desire to protect the homeland than as a means of earning a college education free of crushing student debt. Still, he was an enthusiastic and talented young sailor, coasting through basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois and then finishing atop his class in his advanced training at the Naval Submarine School in Groton, Conn. By late 1997, he was sent on to Pearl Harbor, where he took up residence for two unremarkable but “blissful” years as a submarine fire control technician.
In 2000, Lewis was assigned to the USS Frank Cable, an auxiliary support ship based in Guam that is responsible for repairs and maintenance of submarines and other ships. Shortly after his arrival, he said, a senior noncommissioned officer “took an interest in my career, or so he said, and invited me to have dinner with him one evening.” The two went to the commercial docks in Guam to buy some fish one steamy mid-August night, then returned to the Naval station, the noncom making sexually suggestive remarks and laying his hand on Lewis’ knee in the car along the way.
Lewis recalls being confused by the come-ons. He had accepted that he was gay, but, this being the era of DADT, he hadn’t told anyone on the base. He says now that while he believes he made it clear he wasn’t interested, he remembers feeling unsure about how to be clear to a senior officer without being presumptuous or insubordinate.
Lewis was confused by his superior's come-ons. Though he believes he made it clear he wasn’t interested, he remembers feeling unsure about how to be clear to a senior officer without being presumptuous or insubordinate.
He wouldn’t have much of a chance. The pair found a grill in a remote part of the base’s vast shoreline, and Lewis’ superior officer began cleaning the fish with a knife. At some point—the details remain fuzzy to Lewis because he prefers not to dwell on them—the assailant tackled Lewis, using the threat of the knife to “obtain my capitulation.”
There are things he remembers clearly, though. The unsuccessful struggle. The burning, white, angry pain. The sound of waves. The damp, salty air. The instant horror, upon waking in his barracks the next morning uncertain how he got there, of both what he recalled and could not recall. “There was significant physical trauma, so there really wasn’t too much doubt” that he’d been victimized, he said.
Not to him, anyway. The Navy doubted just about everything. A friend in whom he’d confided would report the assault to a commander, an unusual step at the time, but it wouldn’t go much beyond that. “You will not further report this to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” Lewis recalls a senior commander saying during a visit with him the following week. “Technically, this is a homosexual act for which you can be discharged.” Lewis says the threat to his career—his career—was clear.
In the weeks following the attack, Lewis grew increasingly paranoid and despondent. He threatened suicide, began carrying a knife with him at all times, spent much of his time trying and failing to hold back tears. “I did not want to go back” to sea, Lewis recalls. “I begged the doctor in Guam not to send me. I very much did not feel safe.” Within six weeks of the attack, even presenting bowel problems clearly linked to the trauma, Lewis was forced back onto a ship, which also carried his assailant.
Rather than readjust, as the Naval psychiatrist told Lewis he believed he might, Lewis became even more guarded and emotional. The command began to relieve him of tasks such as standing watch, further isolating him from the rest of the crew. After 10 days at sea, Lewis said, the captain ordered Lewis airlifted back to Guam and eventually to San Diego, “in four-point restraints and chemical sedation,” where he was assigned to janitorial duty. “Quite honestly, I felt like the lowest piece of shit walking the face of the earth.”
One year to the day after Lewis’ assault, he was discharged on grounds of a “personality disorder,” which the military considers a preexisting, innate personal flaw. A military psychiatrist in San Diego, ignoring a Guam counterpart’s conclusion that Lewis suffered PTSD brought on by sexual trauma, declared that Lewis had fabricated the rape. He was, in an unkind manner of speaking, just disruptively nuts. But not in a way for which the Navy was willing to take responsibility.
Sailors like Lewis who are dismissed for a “personality disorder” are cut loose with a general discharge, a level below honorable discharge that provides former service members with no GI Bill benefits. Lewis piled his meager belongings into a maroon Plymouth Reliant he bought off a fellow sailor for $500 and drove back to Baltimore.
He was 21. Broke. Unemployed. Suicidal. Humiliated. The car broke down several times and finally died in Pennsylvania. His grandmother drove up to get him, let him stay with her, forced him to apply for unemployment and Social Security disability. She put up with his drunken mood swings and emotional outbursts until she couldn’t live with it anymore, and then she moved him into a small income property that she owned.
Lewis never told her what had happened to him. He says he’s never directly explained any of it to anyone in his family, though he assumes they must know now that he’s testified before Congress and all. He can’t be sure, though; Lewis rarely speaks to any of them.
Here’s what might have happened to Lewis if his rape had occurred last week instead of 13 years ago: the same thing. It is true that in the intervening years, the process has been reformed in important ways. Lewis could have filed what’s known now as a “restricted” report if he only wanted to make a private record, undisclosed even to his command, of the incident for the purposes of accessing medical care, counseling services, and legal advice. That might have been a path to better attention than he received and even the preservation of forensic evidence.
But if a victim of sexual assault in the military today does as he did in the summer of 2000—report the assault, name the assailant, and request an immediate transfer elsewhere—he or she might easily find justice equally elusive. Lewis’ rapist, he was told back then, occupied a “mission-critical billet,” making his removal a potential embarrassment for all commanders around him. He was worth too much to them, much more than Lewis. Moreover, no matter who commits the assault, its occurrence reflects badly on whoever’s in charge. “In that kind of atmosphere, if a senior officer picks up the phone and says, ‘Good afternoon, Admiral. I’m reporting that a sexual assault has taken place aboard my command,’ guess what? That dings his evaluation, because that demonstrates a lack of discipline in his command,” Lewis said, echoing the conclusions last year of an independent Department of Defense panel set up to examine the issue. “So, he’s not getting promoted. Similarly, he doesn’t want to have to go knock on the skipper’s door and say, ‘Yeah, Captain, we had a report of a sexual assault.’ It looks bad for the skipper’s career. And so on down the line.”
Thus, commanders—out of self-preservation, or familiarity with the alleged perpetrators or victims—bury cases. Or, at least, they had and still have the power to do so. None of the safeguards put in place in recent years—neither the accuser’s access to a Special Victims Counsel (SVC) for legal advice nor the option to file a request for an “expedited transfer” to another assignment within 72 hours to help alleged victims get physical space from those they accuse, nor even the rule requiring civilian review of sexual assault cases if the commander refuses to prosecute—requires that an allegation receive a thorough or serious airing.
“While the military touts seemingly endless ways in which a victim can report, the fact is that those victims who want to come forward are often directed not to report or are dissuaded from doing so,” according to written testimony by the MST victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, submitted to a DOD independent review board on sexual assault in November 2013. “They are often inappropriately threatened that they will be charged with collateral misconduct and, if they do go forward, are targeted with a barrage of minor infractions designed to facilitate drumming them out of the service.”
None of this would have happened had not Lt. Cohen come forward with an allegation of sexual assault. It is because of this we are where we are today and because of that he is behind bars.
Maj. John Bellflower, special victims counsel
It can be even worse. In October 2011, Air Force 1st Lt. Adam Cohen filed a complaint alleging he was raped by an Army major in 2007. Following his return from deployment in Afghanistan, he then received death threats from the major’s allies. When Cohen put in for an expedited transfer, his commanders denied the request because, among other reasons, Cohen himself was now facing court-martial: A memo obtained by the San Antonio Express-News showed Cohen’s commanders didn’t believe his rape allegation, and Cohen instead became the subject of a misconduct probe.
In July, Cohen was court-martialed and sentenced to 15 months in military prison. Cohen told The Guardian before sentencing that he would plead guilty to the charges, which included making false statements to investigators and conduct unbecoming an officer (homosexual misconduct during the DADT era), to avoid facing his alleged assailant—now also his accuser—in court. Maj. John Bellflower, assigned to provide legal advice as Cohen’s SVC, angrily denounced the episode, noting in a chilling statement to the press widely seen as an insider’s warning to other rape victims in the military: “None of this would have happened had not Lt. Cohen come forward with an allegation of sexual assault. It is because of this we are where we are today and because of that he is behind bars." (Bellflower declined to be interviewed for this report.)
Lewis gave an eight-minute speech to Gillibrand’s subcommittee on that March morning and answered some questions. In his remarks, he gave the broad outline of his story, emphasizing from time to time the point that more men than women were MST survivors, even as his story itself could easily have been that of his female counterparts on the witness panel. “About 56 percent of estimated [sexual assault] victims in our military are men,” he said, citing 2010 DOD data. (The DOD’s data for 2012 put the figure at 54 percent). Then, departing from his official statement, Lewis cocked his head and stared directly at the senators to deliver the bottom line: “This is the part of the problem that the Department of Defense does not acknowledge.”
It’s not just the DOD, of course. The issue gets only passing notice in both political rhetoric and the media. The Express-News, the hometown paper for the Air Force’s basic training center at Lackland AFB, offered just one man, Lewis, in a gallery of MST survivor profiles. Deep in a 2007 New York Times Magazine cover story on the challenges facing women serving in Iraq that focuses largely on sexual assault, journalist Sara Corbett demonstrated the conventional wisdom in a passage containing a perplexing—and inaccurate—parenthetical: “Rape, in particular, is thought to be the most likely to lead to PTSD in women (and in men, in the rarer times it occurs).”
In December, when the Senate approved a laundry list of reforms that included eliminating the statutes of limitations on military rape and eliminating the ability of commanders to overturn jury verdicts in sexual assault cases, the New York Daily News touted the outcome as a triumph for “the women of the Senate.” (Sixty-four of the 84 senators who voted for it were male.)
The DOD’s public service announcements even give the impression that this is a woman’s problem. The Invisible War pointed to some shockingly tone-deaf antirape materials, including a campaign ostensibly designed to discourage men from having sex with drunk women that included the tagline, “Ask her when she’s sober.” Such efforts are still accessible in an online archive, and most recent incarnations are equally female-centric. The DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO, has a handful of video PSAs on its site, one of which is titled “Women Speak Out.” Two of the others employ actors who offer up ways for bystanders to intervene when a man is being fresh with a woman in a social situation.
To be sure, being a rape victim comes with a set of traumas no matter who you are, and women in the military face their own challenges, which such victimization certainly exacerbates. The trouble the female-centered approach presents for male survivors, experts say, goes well beyond the representation of women as the sole—or even predominant number of—victims. Such campaigns imply that sexual assault results from romantic situations gone awry. The fact that most male rape victims and perpetrators are heterosexual would demonstrate otherwise. Statements from such prominent figures as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, who said that some of the rape problems can be attributed to the “hookup mentality” of today’s youth, and GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who attributed them to “the hormone level created by nature,” also contribute to the misapprehension.
Not a single military leader, meanwhile, has presented a plan to screen men or women for past sexual misconduct or signs of potential tendencies toward sexual abuse before enlistment—steps that even chapters of Big Brothers Big Sisters take. Neither have any questioned whether the military’s often misogynistic culture contributes to the occurrence of sexual assault. “Think of the language used all the time by drill sergeants, recruitment sergeants, and in everyday talk,” said Helen Benedict, the journalist whose reporting inspired The Invisible War. “They want to break them down, so they call those who are weak pussy, sissy, girls, ladies. Then they have these horribly misogynistic rhymes and cadences. The military does teach people to be rapists. They teach them to hate anybody they see as weak and give them an urge to smash them.”
Those messages, along with the PSA efforts, show that “everything is focused on this being a women’s issue, saying in so many words that boys will be boys,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, who was once the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist. “That gets to the importance of education. This is not about sexual attraction. It’s about aggression, domination, and control and shame and humiliation.”
Lewis pointedly stated at his Senate appearance in March, “We cannot marginalize male survivors and send a message that men cannot be raped and therefore are not real survivors.”
The military, officially, insists that it doesn’t so marginalize men. In most speeches on MST nowadays, its leaders include a passing reference to men. But even the SVCs—the attorneys now assigned to provide victims with legal guidance—acknowledge they are poorly prepared for the distinct issues facing male survivors. Capt. Dustin Kouba of Joint Base Andrews was an all-purpose prosecutor assigned by his commander a year ago to attend a one-week training session for SVCs before he started consulting with accusers. “That was a limited discussion, and I think it deserves a lot more talk,” said Kouba of the prospects of male survivors finding justice. Four of his 30 cases involved men. “It wasn’t brought to the forefront as it was [with] female victims of sexual assault…Generally, the focus of the trainings were meant to be gender-neutral, but the concrete examples and case files looked at female victim cases.”
Some reasons for low overall reporting of military sexual crimes are the same for men and women: Shame. Fear of career retaliation, reprisals, or counteraccusations from assailants. Distrust of a judicial system that requires people with innate conflicts of interest to decide whether to prosecute.
For male survivors, though, there’s more. The fear that acknowledging an attack will lead to their being perceived by their peers to be less virile and, perhaps, being discovered or perceived to be gay. Academicians and activists point to data that most male rape victims and perpetrators are heterosexual, and the military can insist the repeal of DADT has made being openly gay in the service OK, but neither of those arguments seems to be winning much confidence among survivors in the throes of trauma, Kouba said. “The high visibility of these cases, especially when there’s male victims, it makes it tough on the survivor,” he said. “The average Air Force base is 5,000 to 6,000 people. That is a small, tight-knit community. Even without ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ some male victims find it very hard.” And if the assailant is female, as in one of Kouba’s cases, the embarrassment and shame can be even worse.
Sutton believes it may be even harder for men to cope with their assault because “it’s more natural for women to be viewed sympathetically as victims and as weaker in our society. It doesn’t make it right or wrong. For men in the military culture, being victims of anything paints them as weak.”
Gillibrand says the misperceptions go to the highest levels of government: “There’s a disconnect among colleagues of mine, in terms of the male rape scenario. Some of them are assuming [the rapes are] being perpetrated by gay men on gay men, and that is an incorrect assumption. I can’t give you a specific senator, or a specific example, but in my own emotional intelligence in these meetings, I am sensing that they actually don’t understand that this is heterosexual males on gay or not-gay men, maybe just perceived to be weak men, perceived to be less strong men, as a punishment for being less strong or being perceived to be gay.”
An exchange between Gillibrand and her chief of staff, Jess Fassler, shows the vast learning curve ahead in the Senate. Asked if she had witnessed surprised reactions to the data indicating that more men than women said they were assaulted, the senator replied, “Yes. Several colleagues didn’t know that.” Fassler went Gillibrand one further (something journalists rarely see from Senate aides). “I’d say all of them didn’t know,” he chimed in. “I don’t think we’ve met a single one that knew.” Gillibrand then added, “Yeah. I think it’s just, they start from a lack of understanding what the crime of rape is about.”
Only 12 vets hospital facilities with resident therapy programs for PTSD also treat victims of sexual assault, and only one allows male patients.
The years after Brian Lewis returned to Baltimore are a blur of despondency and inertia, bearing a remarkable resemblance to events in Kevin Powers’ award-winning novel The Yellow Birds, about an Iraq vet returning home after having seen and done unspeakable acts in combat. Lewis shut himself in with his TV and computer, eating poorly and drinking heavily and stepping out, he said, only long enough to buy more booze or microwavable food. His grandmother would come by occasionally to check if he’d paid his bills, making sure he did not end up homeless, as has happened to so many traumatized veterans. “I was trying to make the outside look [like] the inside [felt],” he says. “I felt worthless; I felt violated. I can’t identify a single positive emotion I felt at that time. I was basically subsisting. I wasn’t even really in existence.”
Lewis’ world began reopening in 2008, shortly after a physically abusive boyfriend, whom he met online and allowed to move in, moved out. Lewis dropped in at the Grand Lodge of Maryland, the home of the Maryland Freemasons, at the prodding of relatives who “wanted to encourage me to do something positive instead of lying around,” he said. It was a first step forward, and the sense of belonging he felt there helped soften his self-loathing.
Around the same time, Lewis began reaching out for help. He discovered the website for MaleSurvivor, a group for men who had been sexually abused, and began posting on its discussion forums and dwelling in its chat room. Much of the site was geared toward recovery of men who had been victims of childhood sex abuse and incest, but he remembers feeling relief at the discovery that he wasn’t alone as an adult survivor. He met other male MST survivors and realized he wasn’t alone in that either.
In June 2008, Lewis struck up a conversation on MaleSurvivor.org with Andy Beauchene, a caretaker at an in-patient facility for developmentally disabled people in Richfield, Minn., who says he was sexually abused by his father. Lewis was smitten by Beauchene’s photo with his kitten, and they found in each other common understanding. Though some therapists warn survivors against pairing up, Lewis and Beauchene found having their trauma histories already known between them “makes you talk about something else if you want to get to know someone on a more personal level.” Mostly, Lewis recalls, Beauchene was gentle and patient. “I hadn’t had that in my life,” he says.
Within a year, Beauchene had moved to Baltimore, and they navigated the complex waters of each other’s post-traumatic stress triggers. Lewis, for instance, hasn’t been on a plane since he was restrained and medevaced from the USS Frank Cable. He also hates the beach. Beauchene, for his part, can be easily startled.
Lewis generally carries himself with a severe, businesslike, circumspect posture, answering questions with terse responses and a serious-as-a-heart-attack gaze. The exception: when in Beauchene’s company. Then, his shoulders slouch slightly; a smile creeps across his face. He cracks inside jokes.
Beauchene met Lewis at a moment when Lewis was becoming more proactive about his care. The same week Beauchene moved to Baltimore, the VHA called Lewis to say that, after an 18-month wait, he was finally being sent to Bay Pines, Fla., to the military’s only residential facility that has beds for male MST survivors.
After six weeks, Lewis came home discouraged and angry. He didn’t feel particularly well cared for by the staff there, but more important, he fumed to Beauchene about the stunning inequity of it all. “There’s 12 different facilities focused on sex trauma for women and one for men—[which] they have to share with women,” he said. “There were three to six beds there for men. That’s it.”
Beauchene quickly tired of Lewis’ complaints. He said Lewis did little besides visit the Masonic Lodge and grouse about the injustice of it all. “I said to him, ‘You should just go back to school and maybe start working on something you want to do, instead of sitting at home, being depressed,’” Beauchene recalls. “Not to sound harsh or anything, but do something other than sit around and collect a disability check.”
By the time Lewis took his seat before Gillibrand’s committee, he had become accustomed to talking about his case. He connected with Protect Our Defenders in 2011, held meetings with many organizations and public officials, appeared in The Invisible War and a soon-to-premiere documentary, Justice Denied, by the wife of another MST survivor, whose assault took place in the 1970s. He started up a male MST support group at the VHA hospital in Baltimore, was on the brink of earning a B.A. in paralegal studies and a master’s degree in forensic studies en route to matriculating as a law student at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., this coming summer. Lewis and other survivors also launched a private Facebook group for male MST survivors and late last year incorporated the nonprofit Men Recovering From Military Sexual Trauma, or Mr.MST.
After his Senate appearance, he would be emboldened to demand male participation in other panels as well. In early July, he caught wind that the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health would be holding hearings on treatment for MST and that the slate of witnesses was all-female. He beelined to the office of the chair, Rep. Dan Benishek, a Michigan Republican, and asked his staff why no men had been invited. Shortly thereafter, he was on the docket—becoming the first male survivor to speak before a House committee too.
In that testimony, he once again took no prisoners: “It’s been my experience that the Veterans Health Administration discriminates against male survivors of military sexual trauma solely because of their gender.” He would go on to note that only 12 VHA facilities with resident therapy programs for PTSD also treat MST, and that only one—Bay Pines—allows male patients. “Put simply, male survivors have no single-gender residential program designed specifically for military sexual trauma. I know. I tried. There was nothing available for me in a single-gender capacity.” He also bemoaned another piece of evidence that the problem is primarily seen as a women’s issue: the fact that all MST programs in the VHA are under the tutelage of the same VHA director who oversees women’s mental health and family services.
Yet all of his activism to come is propelled, Lewis says, by those two hours he spent in March answering questions before Gillibrand’s committee. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, turned to Lewis toward the end of her remarks to say, “I want you to know, Mr. Lewis, that I very much appreciate that men are victims of sexual assault…in the civilian sector, but in the military I can imagine it’s an even greater issue.”
Hearing those words—even from senators who opposed the Gillibrand chain-of-command reform he endorses—was “very, very empowering” to Lewis. And being treated respectfully in such an august setting, too, was a dramatic reversal. “He’s a man of great courage, of amazing sacrifice,” Gillibrand said in her office in November. “He is someone that I am extremely proud of and inspired by. His advocacy is extremely powerful, and I am grateful that he has the courage to tell his story. I hope he continues to be able to be a voice for change and a voice for justice, because his voice is so powerful.”
Lewis expects nothing less.
“I think that acceptance has grown over time as the message of male survivors telling their stories has grown,” he said. “In the early parts of 2012, you saw very little discussion of male survivors at all. And as we continue, we’ll hope to grow that discussion to where it’s not simply relegated to a footnote, and hopefully be able to debunk a lot of the rape myths that still are perpetuated around military sexual trauma, or male trauma of any kind, for that matter. I intend to help make that happen.”