The U.S. Navy has changed a former service member’s “other than honorable” discharge because he was sexually assaulted years ago.
Heath Phillips, 47, was discharged in 1989 after going AWOL multiple times and attempting suicide. Phillips said he was sexually assaulted on a Navy ship.
Phillips told The Washington Post that the Navy ignored dozens of his official complaints, which he filed after the incident.
“It was like they were pretending it wasn’t happening,” he said.
He tried unsuccessfully three times to have his discharge upgraded to “honorable,” and told the Post that he was denied mental health treatment from Veterans Affairs.
The Board for Correction of Naval Records told Phillips last week that they found his complaints of sexual assault to be “valid,” and planned to honor his fourth request to have his discharge changed, nearly 30 years after it occurred.
“Petitioner’s periods of unauthorized absences after reporting to the USS Butte were mitigated by the abuse, harassment, and assault he suffered,” the board’s letter said, according to the Post.
Phillips told the Post that the board avoided discussing his claims of sexual assault in the other denials.
“They never discussed why I went AWOL,” he said. “It was always I did something wrong. That’s how they always played it. So actually reading it this time, seeing that they substantiated my claims after all these years. ... It’s very overwhelming.”
Over the past three decades, Phillips struggled with alcoholism, but also became an advocate for survivors of military sexual assault, and worked with lawmakers to bring his and other cases to congressional attention.
He spoke at a demonstration at the Pentagon earlier this year led by other survivors of military sexual assault.
Department of Defense data shows that in 2017 more than 6,700 service members filed sexual assault complaints, but fewer than 300 resulted in convictions.
“From 1989 to 2009, I thought I was the only victim,” Phillips told the Post. “I didn’t think this happened to anybody else. Finding out I wasn’t alone changed a lot of perspective for me. And I did not want anybody else to live the life that I lived.”
—Updated at 5:38 p.m.