ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For more than a decade, a debilitating secret festered inside Mike Scott’s head. He tried to tuck it away into a dark corner of his brain, but it consumed his life, pushing him to drink excessively, smoke heavily and, on three occasions, try to kill himself.
“The last time, I was putting pressure on the trigger,” the 42-year-old airline baggage handler said.
Clad in jeans and a button-down flannel shirt, the 6-foot-plus Army veteran agreed to meet with “America Tonight” at a forest that borders the Rio Grande. It’s a place he frequently visits to quell his anxiety.
“I usually try to walk down to the river,” he said, as his feet swished through piles of leaves that covered the ground near the water’s edge. “And I start chain-smoking, as I always do,” he said with a laugh.
As his eyes darted from left to right and his leg nervously bounced up and down, Scott slowly mustered up the courage to make his secret public.
He said he had been sexually assaulted in the military in 1998.
“I thought God would protect me,” he said. “God didn’t protect me, and that’s the toughest betrayal of all. I also feel betrayed by the government and the military and that person.”
Army records show that Scott served as a member of the Second Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. He joined in October 1997 and was honorably discharged in 1998.
During the discharge, Scott said, another soldier who was assigned to help him through the process sexually assaulted him.
Scott said he never reported the incident because he was too afraid.
“I’ll always be a coward,” he said. “But I was betrayed by my own government.
“There’s a lot of people who feel that if you can’t stay strong in the military, you don’t belong there.”
For years, he battled the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of “military sexual trauma,” a term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He struggled with “intrusive thoughts and memories of the traumatic events on a daily basis, nightmares of the traumatic events on a nightly basis, (and) flashbacks approximately once every three months,” according to medical records he shared with “America Tonight.”
On his last attempt to kill himself, earlier this year, he contacted the VA for help.
“I ended up … with my .22 rifle in my mouth, drunk,” he said, explaining the moment when he dialed the veteran crisis line.
There are tens of thousands of military veterans just like Scott.
According to an anonymous 2012 Department of Defense survey of active-duty service members, approximately 14,000 men said they experienced unwanted sexual contact last year, compared with 12,000 women.
Of those servicemen, 27 percent said the offender was in their chain of command, 22 percent said the offender used physical force and 21 percent said the offender threatened to ruin their reputation if they did not consent. Seventy-three percent of incidents occurred at a military installation, and 49 percent occurred during duty hours.
While the numbers represent only approximately 1.2 percent of male active-duty service members and 6.1 percent of females, they do not reflect how many service members have kept their sexual assaults secret over the past several decades.
Amando Javier, 44, is one of them.
Javier emigrated from the Philippines in 1989 and shortly thereafter joined the U.S. Marines.
For 15 years, he never told anyone about a sexual assault that he says happened while he was stationed at Camp Lejeune.
“A total of six men raped me while I was in active duty,” he said, grinding his teeth. He tightly squeezed his eyes shut as he recalled the attack.
“I was sodomized and penetrated, and I did not report my rape because I was protecting my career,” he said. “I was scared and didn’t know what to do at that time. I was young.”
After the rape, Javier said, he took a shower and reported back to work as if nothing had happened.
“I was crying,” he said. “I was bleeding and leaking from behind. I didn’t tell anybody. I worried about being labeled as a homosexual.”
Michael Matthews, an Air Force veteran who served in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said many people associate a sexual assault with someone’s sexuality.
However, sexual assault is really about power, not sex, he said.
Matthews, 59, told “America Tonight” he became the victim of sexual assault in the military when he was 19.
“I was knocked out unconscious,” he said. “I came to and thought something fell on me — like off the building or something.
“I thought some people were helping me, but I realized they’re holding me down. I thought I was gonna die.”
He kept information about his attack secret for approximately 30 years, he said. He had been married for 20 years before his wife, Geri Lynn Weinstein-Matthews, learned what had happened.
“He didn’t go into a whole lot of detail,” she said. “I basically listened. You know, I was a combination of relieved and stunned at the same time.”
Weinstein-Matthews said she finally understood why she and her husband had been having intimacy issues. “Emotional intimacy and physical intimacy,” she said. “And so when he told me what happened, I was relieved.”
Matthews and his wife now work as advocates trying to spread the word about male assault victims.
In early December, the two said, they flew to Washington to meet with lawmakers and military personnel about the issue and discuss ways to prevent sexual assault within the ranks.
“I’m ashamed that we’ve been talking to victims for the last 40 years,” he said. “You’ve been having hearings and nothing has been done, and it’s affecting the national defense of our country.”
They also produced a documentary film, “Justice Denied,” to raise awareness. The documentary features candid interviews with military sexual assault survivors including Matthews and Javier.
“It’s an issue of human rights. It’s not an issue of gender or sexuality,” said Weinstein-Matthews.
“It’s a secret that’s been kept down for quite a while, and we’re only as sick as our secrets. The system — our armed forces — it’s a system that needs to look at this. It’s a blight,” she said.
The Pentagon responds
In the Department of Defense’s annual Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) report, the military pledged to “promote initiatives that address sexual assault against male victims” in fiscal year 2013.
In a statement, Deputy Director of SAPRO Col. Alan Metzler told “America Tonight” that the process is ongoing. “DoD has included information for male victims on the DoD Safe Helpline … which provides 24/7 anonymous victim support from anywhere in the world,” he said.
“Service members in need of information can ‘text, call or click.’ Safe Helpline users are connected with trained professionals at the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (which operates the resource for DoD) and those professionals have been trained to assist male victims,” the statement continued.
“DoD SAPRO recognizes the challenges male survivors face and has reached out to organizations supporting male survivors for assistance and information to help inform our way ahead. A focus of our prevention efforts over the next several months is specifically geared towards male survivors and will include why male survivors report at much lower rates than female survivors, and determining the unique support and assistance male survivors need.”
Scott said he believes the culture of the military needs to undergo dramatic changes to affect the manner in which perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes.
"There are a lot of people in the military who think it is good to have rapists in the ranks, to have people without empathy in the ranks, because they think that makes the military tough,” he said. “I think there are people in the military who quietly think that the military is stronger to have people who are violent, without empathy, predators. I think that there's a part of the military — senior leadership — who thinks that's a good thing."
Metzler said the DoD “categorically” rejects Scott’s comments.
“Secretary Hagel has been very clear — we must have a culture in the military where sexist behaviors, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are not tolerated, condoned, or ignored,” his statement said.
“The leadership of this department has no higher priority than the safety and welfare of our men and women in uniform, and that includes ensuring they are free from the threat of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Leaders at every level in this institution will be held accountable for preventing and responding to sexual assault in their ranks and under their commands.”
While the DoD works to develop new strategies to address the issue of male sexual assault within the ranks, doctors and social workers at one Veterans Affairs facility near Tampa, Fla., are trying to assist men who are victims of military sexual trauma.
In 2000, Dr. Carol O’Brien helped develop what is now a 16-bed residential treatment center at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System. Originally it was available only for female victims of sexual assault, but it became available for men in 2003.
“When we first opened the program to men … we were really doubtful about whether we’d have enough men to fill those beds,” she said. “And so we said, ‘Well, let’s give it a try.’ Certainly, we knew from the numbers that the need was there, but we weren’t sure that men would actually come in and seek help. We were both shocked and pleasantly surprised … that they were willing to come in and teach us a lot about what they needed and also use our service in order to heal.”
O’Brien’s program offers treatment to patients in group settings as well as on an individual basis.
Male victims are different from women, she said, because men often do not grow up learning about the possibility of becoming a sexual assault victim.
“Boys, as they’re growing up, are not told about the possibility of rape, and often get very unhealthy … messages about victims of rape when they’re men,” O’Brien said.
She said men often do not come forward about their assaults because they experience a profound amount of fear and shame.
“Telling family members, to them, feels very threatening,” she said. “What if they meet with rejection? Men are often worried that if they were sexually assaulted by another man and they’re married — if they tell their wife — their wife will say, ‘But you must be gay.’”
O’Brien said her program works to bring men together who have shared similar experiences. Many patients were assaulted decades ago.
“Suddenly there is a forum where you can interact with another man who experienced the same thing, and I think that by itself is a great service,” she said.
Men also receive treatment alongside women as part of the program.
“A lot of the conclusions that both men and women draw about themselves once they’ve been raped has to do with their relationship with the opposite sex. Now they’re in a treatment setting in which they’ve got a great deal of support, and they can begin to interact with each other … (and) talk about some of those … distorted beliefs and start to correct some of those misinterpretations.”
“I think male victims have not been very loud in terms of their voice to indicate that they’ve been traumatized, because of the stigma,” said Dr. Alfonso Carreno, the chief of mental health and behavioral sciences at Bay Pines.
“I think unfortunately, in our society, when males are traumatized they’re given certain assumptions about them which are totally incorrect,” he said.
Carreno said every veteran who enters the Bay Pines facility is screened for military sexual trauma. He said there is always room for improvement when it comes to helping the victims.
“Early identification of veterans with military sexual trauma in the Department of Defense while they’re on active duty would be very helpful,” he said, adding that there is also a need for more veterans’ facilities that specifically handle men’s issues.
“I think we need more residential-treatment settings specialized in military sexual trauma treatment,” he said. “I think we’re moving toward that.”