Nova Scotia

A navy officer deserts his ship, haunted by sexual abuse that derailed Olympic dreams

A former Royal Canadian Navy officer who pleaded guilty in 2014 to deserting his warship is speaking out about the abuse he says he suffered long before his military career, when he was a champion swimmer at Ohio State University.

Later harassment on warship prompted Derek de Jong to go AWOL

Derek de Jong at his home on the outskirts of Halifax. He says he was attacked four times by his swim team's doctor while attending Ohio State University. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Lt. Derek de Jong stepped off a Canadian warship in Key West, Fla., on Sept. 17, 2012, with his shoulders back, determined not to stay quiet. 

For nearly four weeks he'd been "raging" on board HMCS Preserver. Despite years of sleeping soundly in tiny bunks at sea, he couldn't stop his mind from racing.

The logistics officer knew going absent without leave was an egregious act and he would be punished. But he'd been harassed and humiliated, and he wanted the chain of command to know about that misconduct.

"I had seen an institution before that failed to realize what right looked like," he said in an interview at his Halifax-area home. "Fast forward 20 years. But here I am again in another institution that doesn't know what right looks like. So I took some extreme action."

De Jong later pleaded guilty to desertion. The military launched an internal investigation and determined a fellow officer had entered his cabin, exposed herself and urinated on his floor. Superiors to whom he reported the incident laughed it off with comments such as, "Some men have to pay for that." They didn't consider it harassment, let alone sexual misconduct.

But no one on the ship or in the later court martial hearing in Halifax knew what had truly triggered de Jong to walk off that day and board a flight home — that he was still haunted by an abuser who had been dead since 2005.

Long before he joined the military, de Jong was among the fastest up-and-coming swimmers in Canada and the team captain of one of the top-ranked U.S. universities for athletics. 

During 1990, his first year at Ohio State, he says, he was sexually assaulted during mandatory physical exams by his team's doctor, Dr. Richard Strauss. It's an experience he hid for decades — from his family, his friends and his colleagues in the Canadian Armed Forces.

"This is like a secret I wanted to die with. I didn't want anybody to know about this part of my life," he said. 

This undated file photo shows Dr. Richard Strauss, a former Ohio State University team doctor who has been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of students and athletes between 1979 and 1997. Strauss killed himself in 2005. (The Associated Press)

Now 48 and medically released from the military since 2017, de Jong said he's finally coming to terms with the corrosive effect of the abuse on his personal and professional life.

The allegations against Strauss, who worked as a physician for Ohio State from 1978 to 1998, are among the biggest sexual misconduct cases in the United States. Lawyers are reporting that about 300 former students are planning to sue or have joined lawsuits that allege school officials knew about concerns and did not nothing to stop Strauss.

In the spring of 2018, de Jong was sitting in his home office next to a red-and-white banner from Ohio State when an online news story about his alma mater caught his attention. Former wrestler Michael DiSabato was alleging Strauss sexually abused him for years. Before long, de Jong received an email from a former commanding officer asking about his experiences at the university. 

"I was angry that somebody was speaking out. I was angry that somebody was taking something I saw as a deep, dark secret and putting it out there for the public," de Jong said. 

In the months that followed, from his home 2,000 kilometres from the campus, de Jong watched fierce and sometimes tearful public statements from a handful of fellow former athletes. Hearing about their traumas inspired him to confront his own pain. 

De Jong says Strauss often hung around the pool deck taking pictures of athletes, including this shot of him at the 1991 Big Ten championships in Indianapolis. (Derek de Jong/Facebook)

De Jong first told one of his teenage daughters and, with the support of his family, started counselling, sorting through the years of anger, disappointment and shame. He worried his former teammates might be struggling with the same demons.  

After university he didn't tell anyone what Stauss did. But fear would return at unexpected moments. Anxiety crept up in the crush of shoppers in a Costco. Sometimes he'd flinch if his wife, Maria, reached out to caress him unexpectedly or his kids bounded up behind him. 

"There's 300-plus other men out there that are dealing with these same traumas. And not just those 300-plus men. You've got to extend that to husbands and wives, to children, to parents that trusted their child to an institution to guard them and protect them," he told CBC News.

Derek de Jong and his father Hank de Jong in front of the athletic centre Larkins Hall at Ohio State University in the spring of 1991. (Derek de Jong/Facebook)

De Jong grew up in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke and had been aiming for an Olympic podium since he started winning national races at age 12. He was recruited to Ohio State two years after he swam in the 1988 Olympic qualifying trials as a 17-year-old. 

The first attack happened in the fall of 1990. Older athletes had been making light of Strauss's exams "alluding to the fact that Dr. Dick is going to grab parts," but they offered few details and de Jong didn't know what to expect. 

What happened he now describes as rape. He alleges the doctor groped his genitals and digitally penetrated him. 

'I didn't fight back. I was told that I needed to do a good exam, is what he said. And he kept going and I didn't know what the exam is supposed to be, no one gives you a script, you just go into a room," he said. "I left that shocked, demoralized."

Ohio State is facing a lawsuit involving hundreds of former students, many of them athletes. De Jong's U.S. lawyer plans to include his case. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

Weeks later, though, de Jong said, he did tell his coaches to keep Strauss away from them. He said at least one appeared to listen.

But nothing changed. The team doctor continued to linger as swimmers changed. He'd follow the team to meets, often taking photos of them from the pool deck. De Jong said he kept pointing this out to his coaches and was often told to "shut up, get in the pool." 

"There's any amount of this disappointment that I'm saying, I'm pointing out that he's continuing to hunt in our environment. And there's there's no need for that to happen," he said. 

His team went undefeated that year and he was voted freshman of the year.

De Jong broke a Canadian record in the 100-metre freestyle and won a gold medal at the 1989 Canada Games in Saskatoon. (CBC)

In 2018, after receiving a complaint from a former student, Ohio State launched an independent investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations. 

An extensive report released in May by the Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie found Strauss abused and harassed at least 177 men over two decades through his work with the athletic department, the university's medical clinic and an off-campus clinic.

The report also found that personnel knew Strauss was sexually abusive as early as 1979. He didn't face any disciplinary action until 1996 when a patient accused the doctor of groping him during an exam. At that point, Strauss was removed from his roles at the health clinic and athletics department but continued to be a tenured faculty member.

By that time this information became public, Strauss had killed himself in 2005. This year the school stripped him of the "emeritus" honorific with which he retired.

University admits 'failure'

Ohio State spokesperson Ben Johnson said the school has taken steps to expose its "failure at the time to adequately respond to or prevent" Strauss's abuse, including reaching out to more than 115,000 former students. 

"We express our deep regret and apologies to all who experienced Strauss's abuse and remain actively committed to a fair resolution, including a monetary resolution," Johnson said in a statement to CBC News.

The school is now involved in mediation ordered by a U.S. federal court and is covering the costs of counselling for former students, including Canadians. Johnson said there is no limit to the counselling and treatment. He also said the school has updated its policies, programs and overall approach to preventing and addressing sexual misconduct. 

De Jong now has a U.S. lawyer who plans to include his case in mass litigation against Ohio State.

De Jong with his wife, Maria, and their daughters Hannah, left, and Trinity in 2011. (Supplied by Maria de Jong)

De Jong has never spoken publicly about his experiences on HMCS Preserver, but he said at the time he was acutely aware he felt silenced in the same way he had when he reported concerns about Strauss. 

He said he felt belittled and demeaned by his superiors after voicing concerns and worried that other people in similar situations were also being ignored.

"I spent four years watching Strauss do what he did at Ohio State and talking about it and getting no critical feedback and seeing no action happen. So then in 2012 I'm like, 'I'm not going to make that mistake again.' So I made a bigger mistake and I admitted it completely at my court martial," he said. 

"A lot of people think that my deserting was a cowardly act — a deserter from Key West, Florida. There was nobody shooting at us. It wasn't a cowardly event. This was me putting my foot down and saying what was happening was wrong."

Following his court martial conviction, he paid a $5,000 fine and continued working as a logistics officer with the navy.

Through federal access-to-information legislation, he later obtained 200 pages, some of it redacted, of an investigation ordered by the commander of the Atlantic fleet in the wake of his desertion. 

It found the Preserver's "general workplace environment … led to heightening perceptions of harassment amongst the ship's officers" and that "most officers who had either experienced or witnessed what could have constituted harassment elected not to raise their concerns and allegations to an appropriate authority." 

De Jong appeared at his court martial hearing in Halifax in 2014. He has never previously spoken publicly about the incidents that led to him leaving HMCS Preserver. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

In recent years the Canadian Armed Forces has launched Operation Honour, which provides support to members dealing with sexual misconduct.

This fall the military announced a $900 million settlement with members who experienced sexual misconduct. But de Jong still worries the dominant culture in the organization is to protect leaders from negative press and silence people who express concerns. 

"I've watched two institutions now that have failed to act properly in the face of wrongful action. I know what right looks like and I've witnessed wrong," he said. "Correcting it. Wow. That's a mountain we should all be trying to climb." 

De Jong's swimming career waned in the years he was sexually abused. He never came close to making it to the Olympics. But by the time de Jong graduated with a bachelor of science he had given up part of his athletic scholarship and was no longer swimming. The pool, which had always been a place of escape and happiness, no longer provided that refuge. 

He said he started bottling up his anger and isolating himself from friends and family. When he headed back home to Ontario he decided to work as a truck driver, where he had plenty of time on his own.

De Jong keeps reminders of his swimming career in his home office. He says he still cheers on Ohio State's teams. (CBC)

There's a series of medals and plaques on the wall of de Jong's home office — mementos from Canadian races and NCAA championships. He still remembers the joy he felt as an 18-year-old when he broke the 100-metre men's freestyle record at the 1989 Canada Games in Saskatoon. It was supposed to be the beginning. 

"I was the most promising freshman in 1990, and I kind of fell flat after that," he said. "It reminds me that I could've been. Should've been." 

De Jong has started swimming again, though. Seeing the scoreboard still sparks his competitive drive but he doesn't like to dwell on what might have happened. He knows other swimmers may always have been a split second faster. He said he finds it reassuring to know that he had potential. 

"I quit on myself to save myself, to get free from something that was toxic," he said. 

Ohio State's Matt McHugh dives at the start of the 100-yard backstroke at the NCAA men's swimming and diving championships in Atlanta in 2016. The school remains a top university for athletics. (David Goldman/The Associated Press)

He said therapy and his family's support have helped him navigate the trauma he's experienced. He hoped sharing his experiences would help reach people in similar positions who are still struggling and blaming themselves. 

The men like him who Strauss abused, he said, deserve "not have outbursts at work … to have a child walk up behind them and touch them on the shoulder and say, 'Hey daddy, how you doing?' without jumping out of your chair." 

"There is a road to recovery. It's available to you. Don't make harsh, instantaneous [decisions], don't hurt yourself. It ain't worth hurting yourself for the trauma that somebody else perpetrated against you. It's not your fault that these things happened," he said. 

A former naval officer tells us how his decision to desert his post was triggered by sexual abuse. Derek De Jong traces his decision to desert his naval post back to an earlier sexual abuse. 8:45

If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support. Nova Scotia's Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team can be reached at 1-888-429-8167 or 902-429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also go to the nearest hospital emergency room.

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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