51 years of silence – A Navy Veteran’s journey to overcome sexual assault and addiction
Michael Roland joined the Navy in 1969 when he was 17 years old. Six months later, he was raped outside his base’s enlisted club. – He didn’t tell anyone for 51 years.
“I went into a cocoon,” Roland said. “It became so overwhelming that I ran, and I did that my whole adult life.”
Roland is not alone. A 2016 Department of Veterans Affairs 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. One in three women and one in 50 men have reported military sexual trauma during VA health care screenings.
Roland was excited to work as an aviation mechanic at a Naval Air Station outside Memphis, Tennessee. However, the teenager quickly realized he was his unit’s youngest and lowest-ranked Sailor.
“I went in right out of high school, so I was 17,” Roland shared. “When I got to my squadron, I was really young and most of the crew were either 1st-, 2nd- or 3rd-class petty officers and chiefs.”
Roland considered himself “naive” when he joined the Navy. The higher-ranking Sailors in his unit invited Roland to the air station’s noncommissioned officers club, and the 17-year-old felt obligated to go.
“They said they were going to initiate me,” Roland said. “I had never drank or done drugs or anything like that, and after about three drinks, I passed out. When I woke up, I was in the back alley of the club.”
Roland described waking up on the ground in a haze. His pants were at his knees, and Roland had a strong pain in his rectum, which contained blood and semen.
“I was angry. I was ashamed,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell my commanding officer or any of the guys in my squadron. So, I just had to deal with that, and I didn’t know what to do.”
A 2016 Pentagon report estimated over 10,000 men are sexually assaulted in the U.S. Armed Services annually. Men comprise over 80 percent of the active-duty military and account for the largest number of estimated military sexual assaults.
However, according to 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 Hospital. “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, according to Perera.
Trying to move on
Roland turned insular after his assault and was honorably discharged in 1971. He returned to his Detroit home but couldn’t escape what he had experienced.
“When I got discharged, I thought that I had alleviated the problem, but I took it with me,” he said. “I was a very outgoing person before I went into the service, but I got very much alone, disconnected from people and angry.”
He started drinking alcohol. Soon, Roland was using marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
“Back then, mental health was not something you dealt with. It was kind of taboo,” Roland explained. “So when the nightmares came, and I was overwhelmed with emotions, I then started drinking and doing drugs.”
According to Perera, many military sexual trauma survivors turn to drugs and alcohol.
“We see many Veterans who’ve experienced military sexual trauma try to self-medicate with substance use,” said Perera. “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.”
Hitting rock bottom
Roland said he stopped using drugs in 1990 and attended the Salvation Army Harbor Light drug treatment program. He became a Salvation Army Officer in 1994 and soon moved to California and then Arizona for work with his wife and two children.
However, moving strained their marriage, and the couple divorced in 2004. The Salvation Army does not allow staff to divorce, so Roland lost his job. His wife and children went to live with family. He returned to Detroit.
“When I came back to Detroit, my mom had died and my dad was really sick, so I stayed with him,” Roland said. “I was still dealing with all my issues and with losing my family. I cracked, and that’s when I started messing with drugs again. Finally, my family got tired of me.”
Roland was homeless from the spring of 2004 until Nov. 4, 2007, when a former Navy friend found him on the street during a cold Michigan day. He convinced Roland to seek help at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, where Roland spent 11 days in intensive care.
“I was just living to get high and getting high to live,” Roland explained. “Once I got stabilized, an inpatient social worker came and offered me a six-month inpatient program. I began to put the pieces of the life back together, building a new foundation, and I started my recovery.”
Roland entered the VA Domiciliary Care Program, which was created to help homeless and disadvantaged Civil War Veterans and is now VA’s oldest care program offering many rehabilitation services, according to VA.
While in the program, Roland was diagnosed with uncontrolled diabetes and advanced glaucoma from drug and alcohol abuse. The doctor said he would eventually go blind.
The day of his graduation, he traveled to Hines VA Hospital’s Blind Rehabilitation Center to begin learning how to continue an active life as his vision rapidly declined, Roland explained.
“I was devastated,” he shared mournfully. “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.”
A new beginning
According to Roland, Hines VA social workers helped him get an apartment in Brookfield, Illinois. Soon 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 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.
Today, Roland has gone from homeless to homeowner, living in Westchester, Illinois, since 2020 and renting out two neighboring properties.
Still at Hines VA, Roland now holds hospital bedside interventions for Veterans who come to the hospital with drug dependency complications. He also started a weekly support program in January 2023 called Recovery in the Community, according to Roland.
“We’re all Veterans, so we feel more open to talk about our issues,” said Marine Corps Veteran Jose Perez, a self-described recovering alcoholic who attends meetings every Monday. “It gives me a purpose, and I know if I have any problems, I can give them a call.”
Facing the past
Roland became sober in 2007 but never told anyone about the rape that spawned his addiction.
“The first part of my recovery, I did well, but I never disclosed about the military sexual trauma,” Roland said. “I kept trying to do it on my own.”
Two years ago, Roland confided in Dr. Pavil Cherian, a Hines VA psychiatrist he worked with who helped Roland start therapy and eventually share his past trauma.
“We worked together for a while, and he talked to me after one of our meetings,” said Cherian. “You could tell he had been affected by this for a long time. He had a lot of strength and courage talking about it.”
“I felt really good,” Roland recalled sharing his secret for the first time. “I trusted him. The relief from that was tremendous.”
Roland’s struggle is not unique, Cherian explained.
“It is a terrible thing that has a long tail and effect for years, even decades,” Cherian said. “I’ve worked here for almost 17 years, and it seems like it’s become less of a taboo topic, but it’s terrible how often we have a positive screening for military sexual trauma.”
On Father’s Day 2022, Roland told his children.
“They were just tearful. They hugged me,” Roland explained. “My therapy has encouraged me that the more I share it, the less intensity it has over my life.”
Now 71 years old, Roland hopes his past can help others’ futures.
“I want people to know that as long as you keep hope alive, anything is possible,” Roland concluded.
Veterans seeking support for military sexual trauma can call a Hines VA Hospital MST coordinator at 708-202-5067. Veterans can also call the main hospital line at 708-202-8387 to be connected. All VA medical providers are trained in helping Veterans who have experienced MST. Additional resources are available at mentalhealth.va.gov and through VA’s free Beyond MST app