Cincinnatus native opens up about sexual assault experience on NBC's Today Show

Heath Phillips appeared on NBC's Today Show Monday morning to discuss his sexual assault experience in the armed forces (TODAY Show)

CORTLAND, N.Y. — A Cortland County man spoke out about his sexual assault experience on a recent episode of the TODAY Show with Megyn Kelly.

Heath Phillips appeared on the television program Monday morning to discuss his traumatizing experience as a member of the U.S. Navy.

Phillips was 17 years old when he joined the Navy in 1988. He planned on becoming a "lifer," which, at the time, meant he would spend the next 20 years of his life as a naval officer.

Those plans quickly changed when, later that year, Phillips would be sexually assaulted on several different occasions by six of his fellow naval officers. He notified his commanding officer, who accused Phillips of lying to him. Things only got worse after that.

"I dealt with 49 days straight of being beaten," Phillips told Kelly. "It wasn't always sexual, but there were more assaults. I'd fight back and it would get worse."

These incidents sent Phillips on a downward spiral that ultimately led to a failed suicide attempt. With few options left, he reached out to his father, a diehard military man, who told his son to come home—words he never thought would be uttered by his father. With his father's blessing, Phillips went AWOL, but the Navy sent him back to the same ship where he was sexually assaulted, and his abusers were still on board.

"It was funny that I never got in trouble for going AWOL," he recalls. "I was always put back in the same living quarters as my attackers, and it was always right back to repetitive assaults."

He was raped and abused on more than one occasion. His attackers claimed it was part of an initiation process. Fed up, Phillips refused to remain onboard and accepted an offer from the NAVY for an "other than honorable" discharge.

Traumatized by his experience, Phillips turned to alcohol to subdue his feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame. "I spent over 20 years as a raving drunk," he told Megyn Kelly. "It was to stop nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety. I couldn't hold a job. Being near men was very difficult. I had zero trust for anybody. My life really spiraled out of control."

In 2009, Phillips finally reconciled with his feelings—as he put it, he went from being a "victim" to being a "survivor." He fought to change his status from an other than honorable discharge to a general discharge. The Navy refused to change it in three different instances, but Phillips kept on fighting. On May 30 of this year, Phillips received an honorable discharge.

Phillips has been an outspoken advocate for military sexual assault survivors for nearly a decade. He has served as a board member of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization advocating for victims of rape and sexual assault in the military. He flirted with a run for Congress last year before deciding to withdraw from the race, citing family issues.