As It Happens

'A sense of validation': After nearly 30 years, U.S. Navy admits it ignored sailor's sexual assault

The U.S. Navy has reversed a decades-old decision to issue an "other than honorable" discharge to Heath Phillips — who says he was sexually and physically abused multiple times before going AWOL.

Heath Phillips says he filed complaints about the assault for 49 days straight but no one believed him

Heath Phillips says he was sexually and physically abused multiple times while serving in the U.S. Navy nearly 30 years ago. Despite filing complaints, Phillips says no one believed him. (Submitted by Heath Phillips)

Nearly three decades after he was issued an "other than honorable" discharge from the U.S. Navy, Heath Phillips has finally had his discharge upgraded to "honorable."

Phillips joined the Navy when he was 17 years old. He was assigned to the USS Butte ammunition ship.

While serving there, Phillips says he was sexually and physically abused by a group of six attackers — repeatedly and brutally.

Every day for 49 days, Phillips says he was assaulted and every one of those days he says he reported the abuse. The Navy did nothing to intervene and after Phillips attempted suicide, and later went AWOL, he was issued the "other than honorable" discharge.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Phillips about the Navy's decision to finally reverse that discharge and upgrade it to "honorable."

Here is part of their conversation — and a warning: this story contains disturbing details.

Mr. Phillips, what went through your mind when you found out your discharge from the U.S. Navy had been changed to honourable?

The first thing that went through my mind was, "Oh my God." I probably said that 150 times. It was like a sense of relief, a sense of validation, knowing that almost 29 years later the Navy finally, in not so many words, admitted that they were wrong.

I think one of the biggest parts was actually reading where the contention of me having MST, military sexual trauma, was validated.

This is going back to 1988. I hate asking you this, but I know you've talked about it. When did the abuse begin?

The abuse started actually the very first day of reporting to my ship. Due to the fact that there was nobody to process me in, six shipmates offered to help me get processed in. And unfortunately, my first assault happened in New York City. We were at the Army Navy Hotel. I had two Dixie cups of beer and somehow I was groggy and I ended up falling asleep, passing out, whatever you want to call it, to waking up to my very first assault.

It was 49 days of some form of an assault — whether it was via sexual rape [or] just bullying tactics of beating me up. I reported this for 49 days with no resolution, no help, and being called, basically, a liar. My favourite was I was "a mama's boy."

I would explain to them what had happened to me. Some of the mean things that they would do — imagine using your pointer fingers, sticking them in the outer edges of your eye socket and pushing in. They would do this on each side of my face with their fingers, one on each eye, until I would open my mouth and do things with them. And they would do it the whole time.

Over the years, I've heard people say, "If it was me, I would have fought back." I was 17. I weighed 130 pounds. Anywhere from two to six guys and each person outweighed me. And people saw this happening and nobody ever lent a hand to help me, or a voice.

What did you eventually do to get out of this?

On the 49th day, I tried committing suicide. Somebody had found me and brought me down. I called home. My dad, being pro-military, actually told me to go AWOL so they could try helping me to figure this out. My only reprieve was when I would go AWOL. That was when I had my escapes. There was nothing I would even wish upon my attackers. I would never wish this upon anybody.

It really ruined your life for many years, didn't it, what happened to you.

Yes, ma'am. When I went home, I was already drinking heavily at 18. So I spent a better part of 20 years as an alcoholic. I used pills to sleep. I couldn't get close to my children. I constantly beat myself up over, you know, was I straight? Was I gay? Why did they do this to me? What did I do to make them think that they could do this?

And the why, why, why just made me spiral down further and further. I was really ashamed with myself. Wow, this is actually the first time I've ever said that. I was ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my life. I was ashamed of what I was and what I had become.

What turned things around for you? Because you survived all of that and you became an advocate for victims of sexual assault in the military. You fought for this discharge. What turned around for you?

Googling. I'd never really Googled anything and I found out I wasn't alone, which was huge for me because for 20 years I thought I was the only person that had been raped like this. When I first met a group of survivors, in 2011, there was no looking down on each other like I had gotten over the years from other people.

We treated each other with dignity and respect and like we were brothers and sisters. It was amazing to me. It made this drive in me of I don't want anyone to be like me. I don't want anyone to go through what I went through. And I was getting tired of hearing about the chain of command ignoring things. You know, my case all over again. I do not want other people to suffer like I did.

What do you think finally made the board recognize what had happened to you?

My persistence. Having a phenomenal attorney. Also, some of the laws have changed in Congress and I had a hand in some of that. So seeing a conclusion, and a write up like this for the decision, was … it's still overwhelming. It's amazing that after all these years, people are starting to listen.

Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and John McGill. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q & A edited for length and clarity.