Heath Phillips aspired to join the military at age 16 after dropping out of school to get his GED. His parents were no longer together, and he said he felt like a burden to his mother, so he enlisted in the Navy on his 17th birthday.
During his speech to the Fort Belvoir community April 23, he described the sexual and physical violence he endured all before he turned 18 while in the military. His visit was part of a joint event between The Army Aviation Brigade and the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Phillips shared his story to encourage people to help prevent sexual violence and to be an active bystander.
49 days of hell
Early into his military career, Phillips met with six shipmates who would eventually become his attackers. He was first assaulted in New York after drinking with them. After the assault, Phillips ran to the bathroom and said he was disgusted and scared and tried to wash himself off with hot water as if trying to burn his skin off.
“All of these emotions run through you, and they are really hard to explain because I’m 17… this has never been spoken about.”
He spoke to leadership, but at 17 and talking to another man about it, Phillips said it was difficult. Instead of receiving help, he was told his drinking was the problem.
Phillips encountered the six men again once he in-processed.
“That started a cycle of 49 days of hell,” Phillips said, adding that he was assaulted continuously and bullied by the six men.
He reported their actions multiple times but was always rebuffed with disbelief and accusations, Phillips said. Two of his attackers were also in his chain of command. He was left without assistance from those in charge or from those who saw what happened.
“I was pulled out of my bunk and assaulted, and when I mean assaulted I mean raped. In between these bunks, there’s not a lot of room, and they could hear you. You’re fighting, your scuffling. I’m falling into people’s bunks, and not one soul ever said something. They would just roll over,” Phillips said.
By the 49th day, he had lost weight, had sleeping issues, and had a drinking problem.
“I was a mental mess, and I made a choice to die. I tried hanging myself,” Phillips said. The suicide attempt failed, and he was subsequently chastised by a chief petty officer for his actions.
Phillips eventually went AWOL to get away but was arrested. Twenty years later, he found out that two of the culprits in his assault had also raped 17 others; despite the severity of their actions, they had only received 60 days in the brig and bad conduct discharges. Despite the investigations and punishment, the abuse continued. He went AWOL a second time and received an other than-honorable discharge.
The turning point
Phillips said he spent 20 years of his life riddled with problems, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
While he was able to learn to forgive himself and his attackers, Phillips said he had trouble forgiving a particular bystander who continued to brush his teeth and did nothing while Phillips lie unconscious after an attack.
“I challenge each and every one of you here not to be that toothbrush guy,” he said.
“There are a lot of things that I regret that I have done. I don’t regret doing this though,” he said referring to speaking to others about what happened. “I’m not embarrassed to tell another man that I was raped. Why? Because it’s not my fault … they had the issues.”