Bill Minnix sat in his white Chevy hatchback, high on a cliff outside Bigfork, Montana.
It was October 2013, and he was about to kill himself.
“I was about ready to drive it off," Minnix said. "I had it revved up and about to go.”
Then a car pulled up behind him.
“So I stopped because I wanted it to look like an accident. And I just broke down," Minnix said. "I had been having panic attacks for many years; didn’t know what those were. And I had one that day. And I went back to my motel room. I called a hotline for help. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that ...
"Something just came over me that day that said, you know what, it’s time to end all this find out what’s wrong.”
Minnix was ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His PTSD was the result of what’s called military sexual trauma. Shortly after he joined the military he was raped, repeatedly.
“I saw the veterans that were being spit at coming home at Travis Air Force Base and rocks being thrown at them," said Minnix, who joined the U.S. Air Force in February 1973. "I wanted to do something, so I joined at 17, gave up my graduation, my prom and was really proud to be sworn into the Air Force.”
Two months later, he was at Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Mississippi, learning how to service and repair radar equipment. Officers invited him to a party at a Gulf Coast resort called the White House.
“Well, it turned out these were parties being given by those in higher ranks, almost like an officer’s club," Minnix said. "Young recruits were fed alcohol, given alcohol ... I was raped four times within a few weeks.”
After he was raped, Minnix said he saw his assailant on base every day. So he stopped showing up for work. In the military it’s called going AWOL — absent without official leave.
“I was gone several days. They picked me up in the chow hall on base. Told me, ‘OK, go back to work,'" he said. "I went back to work and was seeing my assailants again. And I just couldn’t handle it any more and went AWOL again.”
Minnix’s military records show he was gone 27 days in all and include a signed personal statement explaining his absences. He wrote:
“I am besieged by some personal problems, and at the present time it doesn’t seem possible that I am able to handle my personal problems and at the same time maintain the high standards required by the USAF.”
On July 19, 1973, just six months after Minnix began his military career, he was discharged with the words “UNDER OTHER THAN HONORABLE CONDITIONS” stamped on his DD 214, the military’s discharge form.
In essence, Minnix was kicked out of the Air Force because he stopped showing up for work. He said it was the only way he could get away from his assailants.
Minnix described the decades that followed as disconnected. He moved from state to state and held down random jobs.
For 40 years that discharge status would bar Minnix from getting care at Veterans Affairs hospitals and access to education benefits such as the GI Bill. Only after his suicide attempt did he start to receive counseling.
But then again, his stint in the Air Force was so short that for years Minnix didn’t consider himself a vet. Instead, after he was discharged, he felt more like a criminal.
For decades he was alone with his story. The weight of it ultimately drove him to that cliff in Montana.
“Nobody believed me. My family didn’t believe me," he said. "My sister picked me up from the airport. I couldn’t share with her what had happened, because a man just doesn’t get raped. That’s what I went with all my life. And that takes a lot away from a person. It does.”
Miranda Petersen said Minnix's case is far from an isolated incident. Petersen works at Protect Our Defenders, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for reforms to how the military handles sexual assault.
“A lot of times for male survivors there is a really severe stigma around sexual assault," she said. "And the military to this day continues to have really limited resources that are targeted towards male survivors. So unfortunately, it’s extremely common to see men who have suffered for a long time without being able to speak about what they faced or to access appropriate care.”
Minnix is part of a Human Rights Watch report set to released in May about members of the military who were wrongfully discharged after reporting a sexual assault, said Sara Darehshori, the report's author.
“Bill is an example of someone who received an other-than-honorable discharge for misconduct that was directly linked to a sexual assault and as a result had to live with discharge papers that labeled him as a bad soldier and prevented him from accessing the types of benefits and healthcare and assistance that he needed to recover from the trauma," she said.
Victims of military sexual trauma are more likely to kill themselves. One of the authors of a recent VA study noted that many of the stressors associated with being in military, like deployments and working in a war zone, are unavoidable. They’re the consequences of war. But military sexual trauma is not. It’s completely preventable.
“Since 2012, the Secretaries of Defense have issued 54 separate directives to improve how the department prevents and responds to sexual assault," said Nate Galbreath, who helps run the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
He said the number of sexual assaults is falling, and the amount of work put into preventing sexual assaults and supporting victims has increased dramatically since Bill Minnix was raped.
“In the 1970s, this was a crime that everyone knew was out there, but no one really knew what it looked like," Galbreath said.
At a hearing earlier this year, Minnix formally asked the VA to upgrade his discharge status. If granted, the change would entitle him to health care through the VA. But after weeks of talking to Minnix, it was clear that this was also about healing — righting a wrong.
At the end of February, I received an emotional voicemail.
“Conrad, this is Bill. I am so excited. I won. They ruled yesterday. All VA benefits."
I called him back immediately, and he explained:
“I’m granted all VA benefits. My discharge is being seen as honorable now and that my service was honorable.”
Minnix was awarded a partial disability. In addition to receiving VA benefits he’s getting a monthly disability check because he suffers from PTSD. This is a big deal and an unlikely victory. The vast majority of veterans who try to challenge their discharge status fail.
While the VA now sees Minnix’s service as honorable, the Department of Defense is a separate government agency. It still has his discharge status recorded as “UNDER OTHER THAN HONORABLE CONDITIONS.” Challenging a discharge status with the DOD is a whole different process.
But Minnix is undeterred. In fact, he’s already started.