Bill Minnix is an Air Force Veteran and survivor. In this powerful piece, Bill shares his struggles with PTSD and suicide in the wake of military sexual assault, and the need for reform.
Protect Our Defenders applauds Bill’s courage in sharing his deeply personal experience.
I have PTSD. We all know what it is, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am one of millions who are affected by it each and every day. I am also one of hundreds of thousands of survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), just one of the causes of PTSD. But along with my MST Community, we acknowledge this remains a dark secret within our military and most lawmakers refuse to acknowledge the MST epidemic continues to occur within the ranks of our military. For decades, those guilty of assault in higher commands are seldom prosecuted, and are allowed to continue on with their ranks and pensions, creating a situation that exposes other victims to their atrocities.
Growing up, the Vietnam War was on the nightly Huntley and Brinkley Report on our black and white television set. It was amazing to me that videos and footage could be shown in my living room several days after it was made. This was a new era in communication. As the war intensified, protesters where shown spitting on returning soldiers while calling them names. This made me feel very ashamed as a young teen in America, because these men and women would give their lives for our freedoms.
During the war era, I often watched the cartoon Roger Ramjet, who portrayed a patriotic and highly moral – if not very bright – hero. Roger had the inclination to save the world, with the help of his proton energy pills (“PEP”) that gave him the strength of twenty atom bombs for a period of twenty seconds. Invariably he saved the world by defeating the various elements that populated this series. The theme song lyrics, “Roger Ramjet is our hero, hero of our nation,” stuck with me throughout my adolescence.
During my high school years, I began to look up to my brother-in-law who was a Captain in the United States Air Force. I wanted to be a part of that team “up in the wild blue yonder.” Combined, I also wanted to be like the character Roger Ramjet. So at the age of seventeen, a young man, innocent and seeking to find my manhood and purpose in this life (not to mention leaving the authority of my parents), I joined the United States Air Force. It was midterm in high school, so I graduated early, sacrificing the attendance of my senior prom and graduation, and was off to Lackland Air Force Base for basic training.
Basic training was tough, like it is for any young man or woman attempting to find their way in this world, but it was making me into a warrior. I do remember reports going around that a WAF was raped behind a dumpster on base, but that was hushed quickly. I graduated and was transferred to Tech School at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi to become a radar repairman, as I scored high in my aptitude test qualifying me for a military career in electronics. It was here at tech school that I began to build a black box of shame, guilt and fear that would consume my everyday life for over four decades. The impossible was stealing my young spirit and manhood.
I was invited to go off base to go drinking with the guys. At the first this seemed appropriate, as the offer to “party” came from individuals the higher ranking airmen. At seventeen and eighteen years old, those same people were contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a crime, as they were the ones ordering and buying my drinks. I will never forget the establishment, a renowned hotel and resort in Gulfport, Mississippi called the White House. Since then, this place has been closed, remodeled and opened again. The White House was known for its lavish and wild parties, swimming pool and bar. Decades later, I came to the realization that as a young recruit, I became the perfect prey for a rapist fraternity of sorts.
Yes, I was raped, often when intoxicated or drugged by others to a point I had no control of my being. I can remember being told this was part of the Air Force initiation and if I was to succeed, I had to keep the secret, as it was honorable to hold such a dark secret, so, I was told. While holding this secret, I would see my assailants often in the mess hall or on base. This was horrifying for me, and I felt myself falling apart within. I began to lose sleep, became confused, and eventually went AWOL to get away from it all.
While AWOL, I stayed with a lady at a motel who felt sorry for me. During this period, I would sneak on the base to eat because I had no money. After seventeen days, I was arrested in the chow hall for being AWOL. While in the Brig, I reported the rapes to my Air Force appointed counsel as the reason for going AWOL. Nothing was done, and I was returned to duty. Shortly after, I failed to report to duty for eleven days, and was placed on deserter status. I was apprehended on base, and I am not sure how they determined deserter status when my absence was not long enough under statute to be a deserter.
I will never forget the horror of being discharged from the United States Air Force, stripped of my uniform, stripped of my rank Airman 1st Class, and escorted off base like a criminal, being told never to return. The career I had honorably chosen and enlisted for was taken away from me by criminals who raped me. Today, my DD-214 reflects an “Undesirable Discharge”, “for the good of the Air Force”. My military records of my court martial papers do not mention the rape, no mention of rape within my discharge medical exam, no mention of a “sworn statement by me”, and clearly no statement of my conversation with my military counsel about the rapes.
I will never forget that awful flight home, and the shame that was consuming me as my sister picked me up from the airport. My life was now shattered; my family disowned me, and I still do not have contact with my family. My own family, just as many Americans and with our own congress, military sexual trauma remains misunderstood and ignored. My black box of shame, guilt and fear was now my safety zone and I turned to running and acting out. I trusted no one! Acting out became my way of life in my desire to be like other people, someone with a life. The buried truth is this: I did not have a life.
I would like to think I live a normal lifestyle, but I often feel I am wrongfully judged. Like many others, I have issues with relationships, nightmares, episodes of insomnia, difficulty with communicating, inability to maintain gainful employment, acting out, panic attacks, long episodes of crying, and much more. I feel I am singled out despite the hard work I have done through therapy to become who I am today. My words seem to be misinterpreted. Due to media bias, survivors have been prejudicially classified as a potential stick of dynamite just waiting on that one match to set us off into a murderous explosion of ire.
I breathe the same air as any other enlistee, and believe that God, as I see Him/Her is the foundation of this Nation. The only difference is that at the end of every day I lay my head down in an attempt to sleep, knowing I could relive my trauma in the unconscious mind. But when my eyes close, my mind takes over and I am plagued with a graphic and amplified version of every sexual assault I had to endure while wanting to serve honorably for my country. In my dreams, I feel trapped in my past, filled with affliction and disdain. I cannot escape from the humiliation and ridicule from those around me. There is seldom nary a night that I have not had an uninterrupted night of sleep. Yet in the morning, I rise with the consistency of the sun, roll out of my sweat soaked bed, and shake off the remnants of the night’s battle and start my day…just like you.
In 2013, I met a crossroad in my life. I attempted suicide by taking my car to the edge of a cliff in Montana feeling there was nothing left for me here on earth. I cried for some time and when another car pulled up, I could not follow through with my attempt. Shortly thereafter, I was led to call my first cousin, a sheriff deputy and then the crisis hotline. When asked if I was a veteran, I said no, but that I had been in the military. I was directed to a veteran hotline and eventually to a nurse at Fort Harrison, Montana, who then directed me to the MST Director. For the first time, ever, I was told, “thank you for your service”. That meant so much to me, because for forty years I carried shame of my rapes, and never saw myself as a veteran, and clearly it gave me hope.
I would like to think I am more functional in society, but clearly, I am more vigilant, always on the look-out for danger, avoiding large crowds and loud places. I worry about what is being said about me and being judged by those who know nothing of my experience. I can still manage to go out to eat, shop for my clothes and drive my car. I would like to socialize with others, but it is unnerving and frightening. I will find a reason to leave and return to my comfort zone in an attempt to avoid a panic attack. Unintentionally I feel like an outsider, not worthy of being in the presence of others. There are times that I use medications to control the cycle of PTSD symptoms. I struggle with taking medications, including narcotics because I believe those are made so that someone like me can’t face reality and instead be regulated. This is my life today, and in order to heal, I find it necessary to explain the circumstances that have made me the man I am today. By doing so, I am enabling myself to soar like an eagle and to fight to end MST.
A recent study has founded that up to 15 times more men in the military are being raped by other men than is being reported by the Pentagon. The report released by the American Psychological Association says the under-reporting is largely due to the stigma associated with sexual assaults and is the reason that the true extent of male-on-male sexual crimes is so vastly underestimated. I can attest to that reasoning, as for over forty years the shame, guilt and fear I carried was without help, the military’s dark kept secret. Additionally, the fact I felt like I was not a man because I could not fight off my assailants imprisoned me in that black box of hell and stole most of my life.
Other than “honorable discharges” are a growing concern, as new reports deem this method a form of retaliation from the military, as it was in my case. But retaliation does not end there. Just this year my government employment and contract was ended. I was terminated for responding to the question, “why was your length of service so short”? I felt pressured to explain what MST was to my colleagues, and that I was a survivor, a voice for change. I gave them the web site for Protect Our Defenders if they wanted to read more about the atrocities our military enlistees face. In retaliation, my supervisor was given a written letter on government letter head, stating my disability was “graphic and disturbing in nature and inappropriate to talk about in the work place. I was terminated two weeks later. So twice now, I have lost careers because of the perpatrators who raped me in the military. This termination triggered my feelings for ending my life once again, but I was fortunate I had my therapy and have a supportive MST Community this time, as well as a very helpful Village of people in Pacific City, Oregon.
As an MST Survivor, I tear up whenever I hear the National Anthem, because I love my country and the freedom I enlisted to protect. Yet, I will never fit in as a Veteran because of the dark secrets of MST that have been kept secret for decades. Just recently while joining other Veterans in supporting a Veterans Stand Down for homeless Veterans; the question of why my service was so short came up again. A retired military officer eating with me kept pressing with his question as to what my military disability is and how did I become disabled? I felt like I was on the battlefield of the “Invisible War” once again, a term we use for our battles of MST. However, I knew as a voice for change it was my duty to explain to him and the others at the table the effects of MST. During the conversation, I was told, “Rapes don’t happen in barracks,” “Why didn’t you fight back?”, and “You must have gone to a gay bar and asked for it.” I did my best to remain calm, but I was furious inside at these unfair and ridiculous remarks that belittled me. I then explained, “Rape is a crime committed and forced upon a victim and not a choice from the victim and my rapes did not happen in the barracks.” I further explained that “I have gay friends today and respect them; I probably would have been safer in a gay bar then this resort full of sexual predators.” I then closed by stating, “We all gave the same oath, one where we have one another’s six, even today. I am not gay, and it is not gays or heterosexuals who are the fault for rape, it is the sick perpetrators and the lack of military responsibility to change it.”
As I wait for my Veteran Disability exam, something that should have been available to me forty years ago and all victims of military rape, I received a letter. It was from the Department of Veterans Affairs stating: “We have your claim for compensation based on your military service. Any time a Veteran receives a discharge that is not ‘honorable’, we have to decide if he/she is eligible for VA benefits. The military has said your service was not ‘honorable’. Therefore, we have to make a decision about your service. As long as we decide that your service was not ‘dishonorable’, you will be eligible for VA benefits.” This letter was very disturbing considering my exams are just less than two weeks away, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has my statements and evidence submitted already beforehand, yet the obvious unfriendly stigma and ignorance to retaliation by a discharge other than honorable remains a huge problem that needs resolving and the honor to those of us that suffered needs to be given back!
I realize that forty years of living in a black box, stuffing this trauma of shame, guilt and fear, cannot be treated quickly. I also know that the military’s dark secret needs to be dealt with head on, therefore my pain and suffering has become a strong voice that will not quit and will for advocate laws and justice against Military Sexual Trauma. Most recently I received this statement from a woman survivor. “It is not necessary for us to be decided as a community but what I am aware of is that often some react from their pain and unhealed wounds. I am grateful Bill for your example and your strong voice. Yes we still need to have each other’s back. I wish there were more of you when our women under fire needed them.” I salute all the MST Survivors who stand together to end MST.
As nature photographer, I decided to produce several videos relevant to MST and PTSD which you may find on YouTube. It was photography and nature that got me through forty years when there was absolutely no help available and if you mentioned rape, you were considered lying.
I have been interviewed by Sara Darehshori, Senior Counsel with Human Rights Watch USA, who along with her wonderful staff work effortlessly to demand governmental and VA changes to the decades of a broken system of ignoring MST. Shortly after I attempted suicide in 2013, I shared my plight to Protect Our Defenders, and they instantly gave me support and are available always for support to any Veteran of MST. Ginny Branam Lee, a very unselfish friend of my MST Community and strong advocate, has proven to be courageous and unstoppable in her efforts to end MST. Together, from different parts of the United States, Ms. Lee and I have begun to “soar like an eagle” in our unstoppable mission, “Breaking the Silence, soaring to end MST.” Most recently, I am grateful to an NBC affiliate reporter and journalist who is heading up a special investigation and report on MST and the VA. This is who I am born to be, and my voice will not be silenced.
However, until Congress, the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, the military’s Commander-in-Chief: the President of the United States, and the American people own up to these barbarities and work together with the veterans to change the military’s culture, another seventeen year old will be forced to endure a life that has no quality, and may become one of the 22 a day statistics–the number of veterans that commit suicide each day…. Nothing can be given back with what was taken.
These are the many tasks a head of us:
- Congress or the President should remove adjudication of sexual assault cases from the chain of command and give this decision to trained, independent prosecutors.
- Congress should reform the Military Whistleblower Protection Act to afford service members the same level of protection as civilians.
- Congress should establish a prohibition on criminal charges or disciplinary action against survivors for minor collateral misconduct that would not have come to the military’s attention but for the victim’s report of sexual assault.
- Lawmakers must take the investigations outside the local unit chain of command, as that is the singular most preventive and proactive way to fix the system.
- The Defense Department should expand initiatives, like the Special Victims Counsel Program, expedited transfers, and non-military options for mental health care, that gives the survivors the tools and control to direct their recovery and their future in the military.
- The military should reward the systems and individuals in the armed forces that take retaliation seriously, and hold accountable those who commit or tolerate acts of retaliation.
- Congress should upgrade current discrimination laws prohibiting retaliation in the work place specifically for MST and PTSD.
- The division between gender rapes among all Veterans must cease, as we are one.
Like Roger Ramjet, all my Sister and Brother MST Survivors, and Advocates against MST, you are “heroes of our nation”. Together in our hearts we have redefined Ramjet’s proton pill, the PED (Prevent Excruciating Pain). Thank you.
In closing, like every other Veteran and enlistee, at the age of seventeen years old and with honor, I wrote a blank check payable to the United States of America, for an amount “up to” and including my life!
Being here today, where my pain has become a voice for change, would not be possible without my creator, who I see as God.
Bill Minnix, MST Survivor 2015