Sexual assault in the military is a problem widely recognized but poorly understood. Elected officials and Pentagon leaders have tended to focus on the thousands of women who have been preyed upon while in uniform. But over the years, more of the victims have been men.
On average, about 10,000 men are sexually assaulted in the American military each year, according to Pentagon statistics.
Overwhelmingly, the victims are young and low-ranking. Many struggle afterward, are kicked out of the military and have trouble finding their footing in civilian life.
For decades, the fallout from the vast majority of male sexual assaults in uniform was silence: Silence of victims too humiliated to report the crime, silence of authorities unequipped to pursue it, silence of commands that believed no problem existed, and silence of families too ashamed to protest.
Women face a much higher rate of sexual assault in the military — about seven times that of men. But there are so many more men than women in the ranks that the total numbers of male and female victims in recent years have been roughly similar, according to Pentagon statistics — about 10,000 a year. And before women were fully integrated into the armed services, the bulk of the victims were men.
For generations, the military wasn’t looking for male sexual assault victims, so it failed to see them, according to Nathan W. Galbreath, deputy director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Only in 2006, after the office began surveying service members, he said, did the military learn that at least as many men as women were being assaulted.
“That was surprising to senior leadership,” Galbreath said.
“Everyone was so sure the problem was a women’s issue.”
A report published in May indicates that while the share of male victims who come forward has been rising recently, an estimated 4 out of 5 still do not report the attack.
For tens of thousands of veterans who were assaulted in the past, the progress made in recent years offers little comfort. The damage has already been done. Many have seen their lives buckle under the weight of loathing and bitterness, and have seen decades pass before what happened to them was acknowledged by anyone — including themselves.
Here are the stories of six of those men. The Department of Veterans Affairs has reviewed each man’s case and formally recognized him as a victim of service-connected sexual assault. The military branches in which each man served were asked to comment for this article, but declined to discuss specific cases.
PAUL LLOYD, 30
Enlisted in the Army National Guard, assaulted in 2007
Paul Lloyd was pushing a cart through the supermarket near his home in Salt Lake City, looking for light bulbs, when he stopped to sniff a variety of scented candles on a nearby shelf. Suddenly his hands were over his face, and he sank to the floor, sobbing.
One candle smelled just like the shampoo he had been using in the shower at Army basic training in 2007, when he was beaten and raped by another recruit.
“Some little thing can happen, and you’re back in that little 3-by-3 square shower,” he said later. “It’s hell, and there’s no escape from it.”
Lloyd joined the Army National Guard at 17. When he was assaulted in the shower one night after everyone else had gone to bed, he said, he told no one. Even when he ended up in the hospital the next day with internal bleeding and a torn rectum, and doctors asked him what had happened, Lloyd, who was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he simply shrugged.
“I felt like I couldn’t say anything,” he said. “I would look like a total failure — to my family, to my platoon, to myself.”
During the years when Lloyd was in the Army, only 3% of male victims reported sexual assaults, according to Defense Department estimates. The percentage has increased nearly sixfold since then, but the vast majority of men who are sexually assaulted still never report it.
Lloyd earned top scores in marksmanship and physical fitness, and wanted a career in the military, but he said a sense of betrayal and disgust at being raped started to gnaw at him. When he was given leave for Christmas, he decided not to return. He hid out at his sister’s house for a month before the National Guard found him. He was taken back to boot camp and eventually discharged for misconduct.
At home, he told no one about the attack. He stopped going to church, he said, fell into drinking and struggled to hold a job. He questioned his own sexuality. His family wondered why he couldn’t keep his act together.
It took five years for him to decide to tell them what had happened.
"They saw me as broken for a long time,” he said. “When I told them I’d been raped, they said, ‘Finally, it all makes sense.’ ”
BILL MINNIX, 64
Enlisted in the Air Force, assaulted in 1973
Bill Minnix was too ashamed to tell his family why he was kicked out of the Air Force in 1973, and they were too ashamed to ask.
What would people at church say? What would the neighbors think?
He didn’t speak a word to anyone about having been raped, he said — not for the next 40 years.
He had enlisted at 17, and was a few weeks into radar technician school when a group of older enlisted men and officers took some new recruits to an off-base resort. In a private bungalow, after a round of drinking, Minnix said, the older men told the recruits it was time for their initiation.
“At first there was laughing and nervous joking, and then there was silence,” Minnix said. “I was scared to death. And we got forced into sex acts none of us wanted.” He said the teenagers were made to perform oral sex or were sodomized. “What an awful thing, when you go back to the base the next day and you are facing these people,” he said.
Minnix struggled to make sense of what had happened in the bungalow. Real men don’t get raped, he told himself, they fight back. He found he was unable to concentrate on his work, and started to do poorly in radar school. He was desperate to get out of the Air Force.
“I couldn’t stand being there,” said Minnix, who lives in Bend, Oregon. “I didn’t feel I could report it to anyone. The best thing to do was run.”
He sighed and added, “I’ve essentially been running for most of my life since then.”
Minnix deserted, was caught a week later, and then deserted again. The Air Force put him in jail and threatened to prosecute him if he didn’t agree to leave the service voluntarily with a less-than-honorable discharge. He took the discharge.
Once he was out, he spent most of his adult life in what he calls “a black box,” shut off from the world by anger and shame. He burned through jobs and two marriages, drinking to numb his own loathing.
His parents never spoke to him again. They died not knowing the truth.
In recent years, through counseling provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Minnix has been able to come to terms with what happened. He has remarried and has joined a local veterans’ group called the Oregon Band of Brothers. He drove his Jeep in the local Veterans Day parade in 2018.
"That filled a big void for me,” he said. “I had military service taken away from me. For years, when I heard the anthem or saw the parades, I would cry. I can feel like a veteran now.”
HEATH PHILLIPS, 48
Enlisted in the Navy, assaulted in 1988
Heath Phillips stepped in front of a crowd of hundreds of soldiers at Fort Hood in central Texas. He took a breath, and then shared a secret that had gnawed at him for 25 years.
“My name is Heath Phillips,” he said, “and I was sexually assaulted when I was in the United States Navy.”
In 1988, when Phillips was 17, he arrived at his first ship, and a group of sailors offered to take him out for a night on the town.
They traveled to Manhattan, he said, and he woke up on the floor of a hotel room to see one of the men ejaculating on his face while others were trying to pull off his pants. Phillips writhed out of their grip and locked himself in a bathroom.
He reported the attack to the ship’s master at arms the next day, he said, but the master at arms just looked at him skeptically.
“Were you drinking?” Phillips recalls him saying. “Do you know that you can get in trouble for underage drinking?”
Phillips said he was sent back to his bunk in the bowels of the ship, where he slept just a few feet from the attackers. For months, he said, they beat and raped him repeatedly.
Phillips said he went to the master at arms again and again, often with black eyes and split lips, to complain about the abuse.
“He always accused me of lying,” Phillips recalled. “He would say I had no proof. I think he just didn’t want to deal with it.”
Phillips deserted, was arrested and sent back to the ship, and deserted again, and again. Eventually he was forced out of the Navy with an other-than-honorable discharge for running away so many times.
For decades, he said, he told no one else what had happened to him. But in 2009, he received counseling at a veterans’ hospital, and came to realize that silence might only allow assaults in the military to go on unchecked.
He became a vocal member of advocacy groups and met with lawmakers. A congressional investigation supported his account. And he started telling his story at military bases — something that petrified him at first, but that he now sees as a vital part of healing.
“I got my military career cut short, and that’s not right,” he said after addressing the soldiers at Fort Hood. “But I still love the military. By speaking out, I am serving in a different way.”
BILLY JOE CAPSHAW, 56
Enlisted in the Air Force, assaulted in 1980
The few years Billy Joe Capshaw spent in the Army were the worst years of his life, he said, but to this day he wears an Army veteran baseball cap. He said it deflects unwanted questions from strangers about the marks on his face.
“It explains the scars,” he said. “They don’t ask.”
In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and confessed to raping and killing 17 young men and boys, some of whom he then dismembered and ate. The news media soon learned that Capshaw had been Dahmer’s roommate in the Army, and descended on Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Capshaw lives.
At a news conference before a bank of reporters, Capshaw described the heavy-metal posters Dahmer decorated their room with, and the W.C. Fields jokes Dahmer liked to tell.
But he did not mention the vials of lorazepam and ketamine that he said Dahmer often used to sedate him. Or the metal bar he said Dahmer used to beat him, or the motor-pool rope to tie him down, or the scars, still visible on Capshaw’s cheeks after nearly 40 years, from Dahmer trying to muffle his screams with a clenched hand.
“I couldn’t,” Capshaw recalled, shaking his head, in an interview this spring. “You say you’ve been raped by another man, people blame you, they shame you. They just don’t get how something like this can happen.”
Capshaw joined the Army at 17 and was stationed at Baumholder Army Garrison in Germany in 1980 when he was assigned to share a room with Dahmer, who was then an Army medic.
Within days, he said, Dahmer was beating him, drugging him and keeping him locked in their room. At one point, Capshaw jumped from the second-story window to escape, and ended up in the hospital with a cracked pelvis. But he never said a word about what was going on, even to the doctor who examined him.
“It developed into a Stockholm syndrome-type situation,” Capshaw said. “He totally controlled me. He didn’t let me leave the room. He would beat me and rape me. But we would also play chess, he would buy me books and suture up my wounds. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Dahmer was discharged from the military in 1981 for alcohol abuse. Capshaw was discharged a few months later, his military record shows.
For five years after his discharge, Capshaw said, he didn’t leave his mother’s house. He stayed awake for days at a time trying to stave off nightmares, so tense that he could barely swallow solid food. He didn’t tell his family what had happened. In a small town, he worried, he’d never be able to get out from under the whisperings if word got out.
“For a long time, the only person I ever told was my best friend, and his response was, ‘I’ll never tell anybody,’” Capshaw said. “He didn’t, neither. That’s a pretty good friend — he knew it would hurt me, it would get around.”
After years of therapy, Capshaw decided in 2010 that hiding what happened would not help him. With the assistance of his psychiatrist, he created a website to tell the story of what he had gone through and how he had begun to heal.
JACK WILLIAMS, 71
Enlisted in the Air Force, assaulted in 1966
“If you report this, no one will believe you,” an Air Force drill sergeant told Jack Williams in boot camp.
It was 2 a.m. in the sergeant’s office, Williams recalled. The sergeant had just choked Williams, who was 18, until he passed out, he said, and then had raped him over a desk while dozens of other recruits slept in the next room.
It was 1966. The military had no response and prevention program, as it does today, and there were no protections for troops who reported assaults. Homosexuality was not just forbidden in the ranks, it was seen as a national security threat.
“If you came forward and said you were raped, people would have thought you were a queer or a child molester — you were treated like it was your fault,” said Williams, who now lives in Everett, Washington.
After the attack, Williams said, he did all that he felt he could do. He took a shower and went back to bed.
The sergeant raped him twice more during basic training, he said. Each time, Williams stayed quiet, determined to make it through boot camp.
But as soon as Williams graduated, he reported what had happened to Air Force authorities, expecting them to jail his attacker and start an investigation.
The anger still trembles in his voice decades later when he describes the Air Force’s response.
“No investigator ever called me,” he said. “Nothing was ever done.”
Instead, his chain of command began to complain about his performance, he said, because the rapes had left him with damaged kidneys and a torn rectum, and because he was missing too much training in order to get treatment. He was soon forced out of the Air Force for being medically unfit, his service record shows.
Today, veterans like Williams are coming forward in growing numbers to demand that the Department of Veterans Affairs provide treatment and compensation for the harm done to them.
Some 61,000 veterans, including Williams, are now formally recognized by the department as having been sexually traumatized during their service, and the number of claims filed each year has surged by 70% since 2010.
A monthly check is poor compensation, though, for decades spent in limbo.
“I had a future, I wanted to serve my country, and I was good at what I did,” Williams said. “That was all taken away from me.”
ETHAN HANSON, 29
Enlisted in the Marine Corps, assaulted in 2014
Ethan Hanson has avoided taking showers since he left the Marine Corps in 2014. Instead, he runs an inch and a half of warm water in a bathtub, then rinses quickly with a plastic cup, with each splash evoking a painful moan.
“When I do come into contact with steam, hot water, anything that makes my skin slippery,” he said as he looked around the bathroom in his house in Austin, Minnesota, “honestly, it makes me want to vomit.”
Hanson was one of a group of Marine recruits who were sexually assaulted in the showers during boot camp at Camp Pendleton, California. Like many of the sexual assaults on servicemen, it was a hazing exercise, meant to humiliate and intimidate young troops.
According to a Rand Corp. study, 1 in 3 men who are sexually assaulted in the military describe the offense as hazing or bullying — twice the rate reported by women who are sexually assaulted.
It happened to Hanson after an exhausting morning running the obstacle course. The platoon was showering when a drill instructor marched into the steamy room, angry that he had heard talking.
He ordered the 60 naked recruits to pack themselves into a tight line against the wall, genitals pressed up against backsides. After holding them in that position for several minutes, he ordered them to run to the other side of the room and line up again, then back to the first side.
“It was back and forth for more than an hour,” Hanson said.
In the following days, several of the recruits reported the episode to their chain of command, and the drill instructor was prosecuted.
Hanson has a copy of the Marine Corps investigative report confirming that the episode took place.
Hanson graduated from basic training and tried to move on, but soon afterward he saw a Marine dressed like the drill instructor, and had a panic attack.
He told his superiors that he was suicidal, and was sent to a Navy hospital. But when his mental health did not improve after four weeks, the Marine Corps forced him out of the service, noting on his discharge papers that it was for “failure to adapt to military life.”
“It’s their way of saying, it’s my fault, not theirs,” Hanson said of the discharge. “If I was injured in training, they would have to treat me and compensate me. But they said this was a preexisting condition.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has since formally recognized his case as one of service-connected sexual trauma.