Bad discharges plague vets who reported sexual assaults, watchdog says
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 20, 2016
They endured rape or other forms of sexual assault. And when they reported the abuses, the military pushed the men and women out of the service, many with dishonorable discharges or diagnoses of mental disorders — “bad papers” that follow them for life.
“That hurt equal or more than the assault — people I was willing to die for didn’t take me seriously,” Cpl. Andrea Warnock, who was administratively discharged after reporting sexual assault in March 2014, told Human Rights Watch for a report released Thursday.
“I did what I was supposed to do,” said Juliet Simmons in the report. She was an airman first class when she was pushed out in November 2012 after she was raped and reported it. “Had I never come forward, I truly believe I would still be in the Air Force.”
The HRW report, based on interviews with 163 military sexual assault survivors from the Vietnam War to today, along with 110 people involved in their cases, said that even after the military implemented reforms to protect victims of sexual assault, there is still no adequate recourse for harmed servicemembers to correct the record.
“There’s been no attention paid to people who did not benefit from those reforms and have to live with these papers that are stigmatizing,” said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
“The impact of bad papers is really impossible to overstate,” she said. “It makes it so hard for people to get the kind of care they need, but also to move on with their lives.”
The report coincided with findings released earlier this month by the Department of Defense Inspector General that said one in three servicemembers who filed reports of sexual assault between January 2009 and June 2013 were discharged early from the military: 5,301 out of 15,461.
The IG study, ordered by Congress, examined cases where servicemembers who reported sexual assault were discharged for “non-disability mental conditions.” In 498 cases, the report said 22 percent, 108 cases, had missing or incomplete paperwork. An additional 35 were excluded for other reasons. Of 355 records that were looked at, 67 percent were not completed according to regulation.
“What amazes me with the military is that year after year we know they are handling sexual assault poorly, but no one is ever held accountable,” said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of survivors advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
“For 25 years they’ve failed to stop sexual assault, failed to hold people accountable. This IG report shows they failed to even follow procedures after the victim is discharged following the report.”
In its recommendations, the IG report called for an evaluation of the necessity of including a designation code on a discharge form to indicate a specific cause.
Discharges for “personality disorder” and “other than honorable” can be devastating, Darehshori said. Those servicemembers can’t get health or education benefits and lose out on consideration for jobs.
There’s a huge correlation between dishonorable discharge and homelessness and suicide, she said.
The report found that before reforms were implemented, many said their diagnoses and discharges came as a surprise. Many were low ranking, without access to a review board.
Their only recourse is to fight the decision after the fact before a Board for Correction of Military Records. Human Rights Watch said those boards are overwhelmed with applications, and the members often don’t hold a hearing with the applicant. They give a cursory review and more than 90 percent are rejected, according to Human Rights Watch.
“They don’t spend time to review these claims in a meaningful fashion,” Darehshori said.
Though the numbers of these cases have dropped, Darehshori and Christensen said there are still servicemembers being pushed out for mental disorders after reporting sexual assault.
In response to the report, the Defense Department cited 2014 reforms to the corrections boards giving greater consideration to veterans claiming PTSD or TBI, and a directive in 2016 stressing those reforms. Darehshori said those reforms were effective for combat veterans, but have not taken root when it comes to victims of sexual assault.
In response to questions from Stars and Stripes, a spokesman for the DOD forwarded the 2016 letter and said that the Human Rights Watch report was based on pre-reform policies. He stressed that since the 2014 reforms, the rate of relief in military sexual trauma cases that go before the records corrections boards are 38 percent higher than rates of relief “for almost any other category.”
Maj. Benjamin Sakrisson said the services are given a wide latitude to ensure high standards are met, but there are also oversight and appeal options.
“In a number of cases where the member was not granted relief, the member was discharged for serious misconduct which occurred prior to the sexual trauma or had substantial misconduct unrelated or unexplained by PTSD or the severity of the misconduct outweighed considerations of victimization,” he said.
HRW called for reforms, including a right to a hearing at a correction board for anyone who does not get to appear before a review board; an index by the board for all decisions by subject; and a directive from the secretary of defense to the boards to give special consideration to upgrades for victims with PTSD.
Joining the call for reforms, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., were writing a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter to implement far-reaching fixes so the corrections boards would expedite review of wrongful discharge cases and be encouraged to consider post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions as mitigating factors in misconduct.
“To all of those who have served very bravely and then were discharged from the military with a diagnosis of mental illness that you did not have, and for those of you who have tried in vain to get that record corrected, we apologize and I am sorry for that,” Pingree said.
Being discharged for a trumped-up mental illness after reporting sexual assault is unacceptable, she said. “It’s clearly a slap in the face to men and women who have dedicated their lives to defending all of us.”