DETROIT ARSENAL, Mich. — According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States, sexual assault and sexual violence statistics are hard to get an accurate measurement on. It’s difficult because there is no single collection of data that gives a complete picture. However, from Department of Defense statistics, approximately 6.2% of women and 0.7% off men on active duty have experienced a sexual assault.
Sgt. 1st Class Fransheska Wiggins, U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program Victim Advocate, and Nicole Lewis, TACOM’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, have worked hard to initiate their “Survivor’s Speak” events. Wiggins came up with the idea after most of last year’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month events were cancelled due to COVID-19. The first “Survivor’s Speak” event took place at the Detroit Arsenal, Mich. Apr. 15. The forum gave the TACOM workforce an opportunity to talk to actual victims of sexual assault who experienced trauma while on active duty.
Sgt. 1st Class Fransheska Wiggins, TACOM Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program Victim Advocate, talked with Soldiers throughout TACOM and found out they were interested in hearing from individuals who have been impacted by sexual assault and sexual harassment.
“I’ve been doing victim advocacy since 2014,” Wiggins said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people throughout the years as a victim advocate, and they were able to get me in contact with others that allowed us to have a diverse set of speakers.”
In this first of two series, Heath Phillips, a Navy veteran, talked about one of the most difficult things he had to go through in his life.
Phillips has been around military culture from an early age, having grown up in an Army household. He joined the Navy at 17.
“I enjoyed boot camp immensely,” said Phillips. “It was one of the best times of my life.”
Phillips was victimized the first night he reported to his first duty station near New York City, by six men assigned to the same ship.
“Initially the duty officer blamed me for the incident,” Phillips said, “He blamed me for drinking alcohol at 17.”
Since the assaulters were part of his unit, the assaults continued for another 49 days.
“Over the years, when I first started talking about it, I’ve been asked ‘why didn’t you fight back,’” said Phillips. “Well, I did fight back, but they just became more violent. The question that needs to be asked is why didn’t my command fight back and help me.”
At the end of the 49th day, Phillips said he attempted to hang himself. He was saved by a Petty Officer on the ship. It was at this time that he told his family for the first time.
“It was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had,” he said. “How do you tell your father that you’ve been raped.”
With his family’s help, a congressional investigation was started, and triggered an undercover investigation on his ship, which uncovered additional incidents within the unit.
When he was sent back to his ship, the assaults continued. Eventually, the Navy gave him an “Other Than Honorable” discharge.
“At this time, you don’t understand what sort of mental issues you will go through,” said Phillips.
The whole incident had a profound impact on everyday activities that affected his life. In 2009, he continued to make statements and joked about killing himself, but it was at that time he realized that something was wrong and decided to do something about it.
“I wasn’t a good person for 20 years,” he said. “I started googling and I found out I wasn’t the only sexually assaulted man out there, and I started getting mental health help.”
Wiggins pointed out that there are many people who know that men are also the victims of sexual assault, but they are typically under-represented when it comes to discussing their cases.
“My first victim was a male victim,” said Wiggins, “That one Soldier was pivotal in my career as a victim advocate, because it makes you realize that men can be victims too.”
One of the concerns for the event when Wiggins was trying to find participants was finding victims that were comfortable discussing their trauma in a way that would not re-victimize them.
“I wanted to make sure that I chose individuals that were comfortable telling their story, and they’ve told it before,” said Wiggins. “I didn’t want to choose anyone that was new to sharing their experiences knowing they were not ready.”
Although Phillips shared his story, which makes it easier for other survivors to come forward, the ultimate goal is to stop it from happening to begin with.
“It starts with prevention,” said Phillips. “Until we start talking about prevention, it’s never going to happen. It’s about all of us working together.”
The TACOM SHARP team has scheduled many Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month events throughout April.
“Survivor’s sharing their story can be an important part of the healing process,” Nicole Lewis, TACOM Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.
Tiffany Davis, an Army veteran, was also scheduled to speak, but had to cancel at the last minute due to a medical emergency. The SHARP staff will attempt to reschedule her later in the month.