Michael Roland was 17 when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1969. Six months later, he was raped outside his base’s enlisted club.
He stayed silent, not telling anyone that he had been sexually assaulted for 51 years.
“I went into a cocoon. It became so overwhelming that I ran, and I did that my whole adult life,” Roland said in a Department of Veterans Affairs release.
Roland was eager to work as an aviation mechanic at a Naval Air Station outside Memphis, Tennessee. He soon realized he was his unit’s youngest and lowest-ranked sailor.
The higher-ranking sailors in his unit invited him to the NCO club and Roland felt obligated to go.
“They said they were going to initiate me. I never drank and after about three drinks, I passed out. When I woke up, I was in the back alley of the club,” he said.
His pants were at his knees.
“I was angry. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to tell my commanding officer or any of the guys in my squadron,” he said. “I just had to deal with that and I didn’t know what to do.”
Roland is not alone. A 2016 VA study of over 20,000 post-9/11 veterans and service members found that 41.5 percent of women and 4 percent of men experienced some form of sexual trauma while serving. And during VA health care screenings, one in three women and one in 50 men reported military sexual trauma.
A 2016 Pentagon report estimated over 10,000 are sexually assaulted in the armed services annually. Men comprise over 80 percent of the active-duty military and account for the largest number of estimated military sexual assaults. Per the Pentagon’s assessment, the Department of Defense received only one report from a military male for every four military women.
“It’s underreported, not just men but also women,” said Dr. Sulani Perera, military sexual trauma coordinator at Edward Hines Jr. VA. “What patients tell us is that there is so much shame that they won’t report. And there is this belief that reporting won’t do anything.”
In the past 12 months, more than 2,000 veterans, including over 850 men, have reported experiencing military sexual trauma during Hines VA’s outpatient screenings, which are required at all VA medical facilities.
“When I got discharged, I thought I had alleviated the problem, but I took it with me,” said Roland. “I was a very outgoing person before I went into the service, but I got very much alone, disconnected from people and angry.”
Roland started drinking and soon was using marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
“Back then, mental health was not something you dealt with. It was kind of taboo. When the nightmares came and I was overwhelmed with emotions, I started drinking and doing drugs,’ he said.
That type of self-medication is common, Perera said.
“The problem is you might start having a drink to take the edge off, but what happens is that it’s not going to be enough and over time the coping mechanism becomes a problem in itself.”
Roland was homeless from 2004 until 2007 when a former Navy friend found him on the street on a cold Michigan day. The friend convinced him to seek help at the Dingell VA in Detroit, where Roland spent 11 days in intensive care.
“Once I got stabilized, an inpatient social worker offered me a six-month inpatient program. I began to put the pieces of my life back together, building a new foundation and I started my recovery,” Roland said.
Roland entered the VA Domiciliary Care Program. While in the program, he was diagnosed with uncontrolled diabetes and advanced glaucoma from drug and alcohol abuse. The doctor said he would eventually go blind.
He traveled to Hines VA’s Blind Rehabilitation Center to begin learning how to continue an active life as his vision rapidly declined.
“I was devastated, but the program gave me hope. The people there became family and really taught me how to live a quality life, even when visually impaired,” Roland said.
Hines VA social workers helped Roland get an apartment. He became legally blind and for 12 years would take the bus to Hines VA, first as a volunteer and then eventually to work as a lead peer support specialist at the hospital.
“Mike’s ability to share his past experiences, both his challenges and his resiliency, serves to connect with veterans who are struggling, inspire hope for recovery and offers a way to connect with the humaneness in us all,” said Dr. Megan Mayberry, Hines VA peer support supervisor and local recovery coordinator.
Roland now holds hospital bedside interventions for veterans who come to the hospital with drug dependency complications.
On Father’s Day 2022, Roland told his children about his experiences.
“They were just tearful. They hugged me. My therapy has encouraged me that, the more I share it, the less intensity it has over my life,” he said.
Roland, 71, hopes his past can help others’ futures.
“I want people to know that as long as you keep hope alive, anything is possible,” he said.
Reach Julia LeDoux at Julia@connectingvets.com.