Thousands of United States service members who lost their military careers after reporting a sexual assault live with stigmatizing discharge papers that prevent them from getting jobs and benefits, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report is the result of a 28-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. Under pressure from the public and Congress, the US military has in recent years implemented some protection for service members who report sexual assault, but nothing has been done to redress the wrongs done to those who were unfairly discharged.
The 124-page report, “Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors,” found that many rape victims suffering from trauma were unfairly discharged for a “personality disorder” or other mental health condition that makes them ineligible for benefits. Others were given “Other Than Honorable” discharges for misconduct related to the assault that shut them out of the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system and a broad range of educational and financial assistance. The consequences of having “bad paper” – any discharge other than “honorable” – or being labeled as having a “personality disorder” are far-reaching for veterans and their families, impacting employment, child custody, health care, disability payments, burial rights – virtually all aspects of life.
“Military rape victims with bad discharges are essentially labeled for life,” said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in the US program at Human Rights Watch and 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.”
“Bad paper” has been correlated with high rates of suicide, homelessness, and imprisonment among veterans. Those with “personality disorder” or other mental health discharges have to live with the additional stigma of being labeled “mentally ill.”
Despite the high stakes, there is little veterans can do to fix an unjust discharge, Human Rights Watch found. US law prohibits service members from suing the military for any harm suffered related to their service. The Boards for Correction of Military Records and Discharge Review Boards, the administrative bodies responsible for correcting injustices to service members’ records, are overwhelmed with thousands of cases.
Human Rights Watch, with assistance from Protect Our Defenders, conducted more than 270 in-person and telephone interviews, examined documents produced by US government agencies in response to numerous public record requests, and analyzed data on cases in the Boards for Correction reading room that referenced “personality disorder” or “adjustment disorder.” Researchers spoke to 163 survivors of sexual assault from the Vietnam War era to the present day.
“As I look back on the incident I have at times cursed myself for speaking up and reporting what happened,” one rape survivor said. “I cannot even begin to express how this entire ordeal has affected my life.”
In recent years, public attention has been drawn to the problem of combat veterans being given bad discharges for mental health conditions or misconduct that may in fact be symptomatic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Congress has made it harder to discharge combat veterans on mental health grounds without checking for PTSD. However, the additional protections have not been extended to sexual assault survivors even though they also suffered trauma in service and the prevalence of PTSD is higher among rape victims than combat veterans.