Report: Pentagon Not Helping Military Sexual Abuse Victims Who Were Unjustly Discharged

By Denisse Moreno
Denisse Moreno
Denisse Moreno
May 19, 2016 Updated: May 19, 2016

Thousands of sexual abuse victims in the military who lost their careers after reporting an assault are punished even after the incident, said a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on May 19.

Survivors are often stigmatized because they fail to get an “honorable discharge” on their papers when they leave after an incident. This then prevents them from getting jobs and benefits, said HRW, which interviewed 163 survivors of sexual assault from the Vietnam War through to today for the report.

The U.S. military recently implemented some protection for sexual abuse victims, but nothing has been done in regards to service members being unfairly discharged, the report said.

In 2015, the military received a total of 6,083 reports of sexual assault involving service members, although the number is most likely much higher since rape is not always reported.

HRW found that many survivors who suffered from trauma were unjustly discharged from the military for a “personality disorder” or other mental health conditions, making them ineligible for benefits other service members are given when they are “honorably” discharged.

Other victims’ discharges were labeled “Other Than Honorable” because of alleged misconduct related to the assault. These victims were prevented from the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system and other educational and financial assistance.

Discharges other than “honorable,” called “bad paper,” or being labeled as having a “personality disorder,” impacts veterans and their families when it comes to employment, child custody, health care, disability payments, and burial rights.

In addition, those with “bad paper” have been linked to higher rates of suicide, homelessness, and imprisonment, while those labeled with a “personality disorder” or other mental health discharges are stigmatized for the rest of their life as “mentally ill.”

“I carry my discharge as an official and permanent symbol of shame, on top of the trauma of the physical attack, the retaliation and its aftermath,” said survivor Brian Lewis in March 2013.

“Military rape victims with bad discharges are essentially labeled for life,” said Sara Darehshori, the author of the report.

“Not only have they lost their military careers, they have been marked with a status that may keep them from getting a job or health care, or otherwise pursuing a normal life after the military.”

HRW says there is little veterans can do to fix their unfair discharges, since U.S. law bars service members from suing the military for any harm they went through during their time.

Meanwhile, the Boards for Correction of Military Records and Discharge Review Boards, which are responsible for correcting veteran’s unfair records, has been flooded with thousands of cases. About 90 percent of those applying to the boards are rejected, most without a chance to be heard or with an opportunity for their cases to be reviewed, the report says.

Although attorneys have substantial evidence and documents for their cases, most of the time the board members only spend a few minutes deciding a case and may reach a decision without reading the paperwork.

“Military lawyers and veterans see the boards as a virtual graveyard for their cases,” Darehshori said.

“Many veterans we spoke with were reluctant to put themselves through the trauma of reliving their assault to try to fix their record when they saw no hope for success,” she added.

One rape survivor told HRW, “As I look back on the incident I have at times cursed myself for speaking up and reporting what happened.

“I cannot even begin to express how this entire ordeal has affected my life.”

Although Congress has made it more difficult to discharge service members on mental health grounds without checking for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), additional protections have not been implemented towards sexual assault victims.

“We regularly hear from people who report sexual assault that they are being threatened with discharge for mental health reasons or trumped-up misconduct charges,” said Colonel Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and a former Air Force chief prosecutor.

“Traumatized young service members may be willing to take a bad discharge just to escape their perpetrator without realizing the costs of their decision. Many more buy into the myth that it will be easy to upgrade their discharge later.”

Heath Phillips, a survivor, said that as a young man he didn’t know what he was actually signing.

“I was 18 years old, was a mental mess, and was terrified to be back aboard [the ship] any longer than I had to. I wasn’t protected, I wasn’t helped, I wasn’t safe from any type of harm,” said Phillips in 2013.

“So how did I actually know what I was signing or even in fact what an OTH [Other Than Honorable] discharge was to mean? How was I to know that from all the sexual attacks that I had to suffer and the harassment, assaults, threats to my life and safety that for all these years [the discharge would be] a huge factor to how I lived and how my life ended up?”

In the report, HRW called on Congress and the Pentagon to address the situation.

“Immediate reform is desperately needed to ensure that military sexual assault survivors can get a meaningful remedy for the wrongful discharges that darken their lives,” Darehshori said. “They deserve support, not censure.”

Denisse Moreno
Denisse Moreno