Bill Minnix knows his face isn’t the one that comes to mind when people think of victims of sexual assault.

But this week, the 64-year-old Bend veteran is making sure he’s being seen in the halls of Congress as he advocates for changes to the way sexual assault cases are handled in the military.

“Being a man and being raped … It is hard to tell anybody,” Minnix said. “Because in today’s society, men don’t get raped. Well, that’s a flat-out lie.”

The shame and guilt he felt after the assault kept Minnix silent for more than four decades. But now, Minnix is sharing his story, hoping to break the stigma and fight for the rights of current and former military personnel who suffered the same abuse he did. His goal this week in Washington, D.C., is to convince lawmakers to champion his cause with legislation.

In 1973, a 17-year-old Minnix joined the U.S. Air Force as a radar technician. Two months into his service, he was assaulted by his fellow airmen while serving at an off-base resort near Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Mississippi, he told The Bulletin on Wednesday.

Because he couldn’t face seeing his assailants every day, Minnix went AWOL — the military term for not showing up for work — twice.

The Air Force put him in jail and threatened to prosecute him if he didn’t agree to leave the service voluntarily with a less-than-honorable discharge six months after joining, according to reporting from The New York Times. And he did.

The next part of Minnix’s life was defined by instability. He bounced from job to job. Two marriages failed, isolating him from his kids.

“My kids suffered because I suffered,” he said.

It was enough to bring Minnix to the edge of a cliff outside of Big Fork, Montana, in 2013.

A passing driver suggested Minnix call a suicide crisis line. The call led to a medical diagnosis — he had post-traumatic stress disorder — and counseling from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2015, the VA upgraded his discharge to honorable, a change that made him eligible for health benefits afforded to other veterans. But because Minnix served at a time when PTSD was not recognized, the Department of Defense won’t change his discharge to “honorable,” he said.

“The (Department of Defense) must mimic the VA’s rules,” Minnix said. “Otherwise we’re having to fight (for the correct status) three or four times. And that should never happen.”

His proposed legislation would addresses this issue, as well as require that a three-person panel oversee each military sexual assault case, rather than just a commander. Two of the three panelists would be civilians who are professionals in the field of sexual trauma.

It would then take a majority vote of the panel to decide whether a case should be prosecuted in federal court instead of military court.

“These people need to go to prison instead of getting their retirement,” Minnix said.

His proposal would also require that the children of victims of sexual assault be provided retroactively with counseling, medical care, dental care and college tuition benefits. The idea would be to provide compensation to the families whose lives have been destabilized from a parent suffering from PTSD.

“No amount can ever cover the pain of the absence of a parent with PTSD, but the children are entitled to reparations,” Minnix wrote in a letter to Congress.

Minnix knows changes like these could have made the difference in his own family. For Aaron Minnix, Bill Minnix’s 39-year-old son, benefits like these could have been the difference between a stable childhood and one constantly on the brink of poverty.

“We would have been able to go to the doctor. Mom wouldn’t have been forced (to be) on welfare,” said Aaron Minnix, who lives in Billings, Montana. “We would have had a father because he would have gotten the help he needed. We would have grown up with a father in our lives.”

For years, his father’s lack of involvement in his life was a mystery to Aaron Minnix. He knew nothing of the trauma his father had faced, or the turmoil he felt over the military career he lost.

While the two have reconnected in recent years, Aaron Minnix feels their relationship will take work, and will never be what it should have been because of what happened in 1973. But as he watches his father advocate for other veterans on the steps of the Capitol, all he feels is pride.

“I’m glad he’s speaking out not only for himself, but for everyone in the future and the past,” he said. “He’s not doing it for himself. This is about other people.”

On Friday, Bill Minnix will return to Bend, where he lives with his wife, a speech pathologist, and enjoys spending time doing something he thought he would never be able to do: belong to the Oregon Band of Brothers, a veterans group. Last year, he drove in his first Veterans Day parade.

“I sometimes still feel very uncomfortable in veterans organizations because there is a lot of name calling for survivors,” Bill Minnix said. “But I have no shame anymore. … Now I have hope, and that’s a big help.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

24019788