US military sexual assault survivors make banners inscribed with their sexual assault experiences in the US Navy. They later hung the banners in front of Naval Base San Diego.

(Washington, DC) – US military service members who report sexual assault frequently experience retaliation that goes unpunished, Human Rights Watch said.  The report is the result of an 18-month investigation by Human Rights Watch with the support of Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization that supports and advocates for survivors of military sexual assault. Despite extensive reforms by the Defense Department to address sexual assault, the military has done little to hold retaliators to account or provide effective remedies for retaliation.

The 113-page report, “Embattled: Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the US Military,” finds that both male and female military personnel who report sexual assault are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see their attacker convicted of a sex offense. Retaliation against survivors ranges from threats, vandalism, and harassment to poor work assignments, loss of promotion opportunities, disciplinary action including discharge, and even criminal charges.

What the US Congress Should Do

Congress should pass the Legal Justice for Servicemembers Act of 2015.

“The US military’s progress in getting people to report sexual assaults isn’t going to continue as long as retaliation for making a report goes unpunished,” said Sara Darehshori, senior US counsel at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Ending retaliation is critical to addressing the problem of sexual assault in the military.”

The exclusive mechanism intended to protect service members from employment-related retaliation, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, has yet to help a single service member whose career was harmed, despite the prevalence of the problem. Defense Department surveys indicate that 62 percent of those who report sexual assault say they experienced retaliation. Congress should strengthen the law to give service members the same level of protection as civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch, with assistance from Protect Our Defenders, conducted more than 250 in-person and telephone interviews, including with more than 150 service member survivors of sexual assault. The report relies primarily on the accounts of 75 survivors who are currently serving or left the military in 2011 or later. Human Rights Watch also examined numerous US government documents produced in response to public record requests, and analyzed data about administrative decisions in which service members had sought corrections to their records in relation to a sexual assault. The research included all branches of the US military.

“A certain Sergeant in my platoon had told me he would kill me if we ever went to Afghanistan because ‘friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens,’” said a soldier who reported a sexual assault by a male soldier from another platoon in 2012. “After I had been there for a year, someone tried to knife me in a bar and kept screaming ‘DIE FAGGOT, DIE’ and that was when I told my Captain that I wanted a discharge before I ended up dead on the evening news which would be bad for him too.”

Defense Department statistics indicate the pervasive problem of retaliation, and various disciplinary actions are available. Yet Human Rights Watch found little effort to deter retaliation by holding wrongdoers accountable for their acts.

Victims of retaliation by their supervisors rarely turn to the Boards for Correction of Military Records, the administrative bodies responsible for correcting injustices to service members’ records. Human Rights Watch found that alleged attackers sought and received corrections in their records far more often than victims, even though victims are much more likely to experience administrative action needing correction. 

“When no one is held accountable for retaliation, it creates a hostile environment for all survivors, and sends a message to criminals that they can act with impunity” said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and former chief prosecutor of the US Air Force. “When a survivor who reports sexual assault is 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation than they are to see their rapist convicted, it demonstrates the military has a long way to go in fixing this problem.”

Protect Our Defenders has created a Pro Bono network of lawyers and organizational staff to assist rape and sexual assault survivors with claims arising from being raped or sexually assaulted while on active duty, including claims relating to the various forms of retaliation.

A major barrier to reporting sexual assault is fear of punishment for minor misconduct at the time of the assault, such as underage drinking or adultery, Human Rights Watch found. Though the military does not consider this retaliation, for survivors facing charges, the consequences could be devastating. Several survivors interviewed were court-martialed or disciplined for actions that only came to light because they reported their assaults. Even if they are acquitted or given minor disciplinary action, any reprimand may be fatal to prospects for promotion or the ability to stay in service. Congress should prohibit this type of punishment to ensure that victims of violent crimes can report them without fear of negative consequences.

Human Rights Watch also documented the negative repercussions for survivors who reported or sought assistance with recovery from sexual assault. Survivors reported significant barriers to mental health care – from stigma to lack of confidentiality – that may negatively impact military readiness. The Defense Department should expand initiatives created as part of its response to sexual assault, such as the Special Victim Counsel program and expedited transfers, and non-military options for mental health care, in order to give survivors the tools and control to direct their recovery and their future in the military, Human Rights Watch said.

“Service members who report sexual assault should not only be protected from retaliation, but they should also have access to the health care and support they need,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “No one should be forced to choose between reporting being raped and staying in the military.”