When Brian Lewis went to dinner with one of his Navy superiors in 2000, he didn’t expect that the evening would end with sexual assault. But after the two had finished eating, Lewis’ shipmate pulled out a knife, threatened to kill him, then sodomized him.
Lewis’ friend reported the attack, but a senior officer told Lewis not to cooperate with Navy investigators. Without Lewis’ cooperation, the investigation ended without a court-martial or punishment for the attacker.
Before Lewis became the first man to testify before Congress about being sexual assaulted in the military, he contacted The Baltimore Sun about his story. Reporter Matthew Hay Brown decided to cover the case because Lewis is a Baltimore native and the story was unusual.
The reporter’s efforts turned into a Dec. 14, 2013, investigative piece, “Breaking the Silence,” which won an award from the Online Journalism Association.
Brown investigated the issue beyond Lewis’ case, studying Pentagon reports listing sexual assault reports and their outcomes. He discovered that a servicewoman is statistically more likely than a serviceman to be sexually assaulted, but because there are so many more men than women in the military, more men than women are sexually assaulted each year. Also, while 42 percent of sex offense charges reported by women were sent to a court-martial, 28 percent those reported by men were.
“It started with a local person testifying, then I looked at the numbers, and that was the interesting thing: A person is less likely to be punished when men report [sexual assault],” Brown said.
Before turning his coverage of Lewis’ testimony into a larger piece, Brown made sure his coverage was worthy of Lewis’ trust.
Brown, who had been talking to both men and women about their experiences being sexually assaulted, narrowed his focus to male victims. Lewis had already spoken publicly about his experience, so he knew of other sexual assault victims who had reached out to him. Because the reporter made sure to be a trustworthy connection for Lewis, the veteran connected Brown with more sources.
“If I did a poor job representing what he said, he wouldn’t want to connect me to others,” Brown said. “If he didn’t like the way I was approaching it, he wouldn’t have … subjected other people to that.”
Lewis — along with Protect Our Defenders, a military sexual assault survivor advocacy group, and Rep. Jackie Speier (California), who advocates preventing sexual assault in the military — put Brown in touch with victims who were willing to talk to him about their experiences.
“Presumably a lot weren’t willing to talk to a reporter, but enough were willing to talk for the story,” Brown said.
One of the other veterans Brown talked to was Peter J. Vouaux, who was gang-raped in the 1970s during his time in the Air Force.
Brown wrote: “Fellow airmen harassed him; he found urine and feces in his belongings.
“One night, he says, a group of airmen pulled him from a movie theater off base, dragged him out to the desert and raped him.
“He says he spent the next 15 years drunk and high. He bounced from job to job. He suffered flashbacks from the attack. He abused cocaine, LSD, heroin.”
Vouaux had been sober for 22 years when the article was published, but he continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing flashbacks and anxiety in crowds.
The Broken Silence
Because all of Brown’s sources had volunteered to reveal their stories of sexual assault, he didn’t have trouble getting his subjects to open up to him. However, they had different reactions to being interviewed.
“A couple said it really helped them to talk about it. … Every time someone listened was like lifting weight off their shoulders,” Brown said. “Some said they didn’t like talking about it but thought it was important for others to hear.”
Sexual assault of males has the added obstacle of gender expectations, said Terri Spahr Nelson, author of “For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military,” in the article.
“They’re having to cross that pretty heavy barrier of not being seen as weak — or even, in some cases, being accused of being homosexual,” Nelson said.
Brown has been contacted by readers and victims who saw the article, but he said it’s hard to measure the impact of his piece because it hasn’t led to any legislative changes.
Brown said people often see issues such as sexual assault as “good versus evil,” but he views it as two groups with different solutions for the same issue.
Military justice gives absolute control unit commanders, who can accept or reject a court-martial’s decision. Sexual assault victims and their supporters often advocate changing this system to one that “follows a chain of laws,” while military officials argue that taking this power from commanders would take away their authority, he added.
“People who want change in military would say stories like ours are building a case for change, and change hasn’t happened yet. I’m not aiming for a change,” he said. “I’m just letting people make their own decisions of how things should be.”