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US Passes Bill to Protect Military Rape Survivors

US Congress has passed a bill that offers better protection for US military rape survivors, both during and after their service.

Human Rights Watch has released two reports on the plight of people raped or otherwise sexually abused while in service, the retaliation they face if they report such crimes, and how many end up being wrongfully discharged from the military. More than a dozen of our recommendations from these reports were included in the final draft of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including new whistleblower protections, a requirement that sexual assault survivors get a medical exam to check for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before being involuntarily discharged from the military, and a number of improvements to the functioning of the Boards for Correction of Military Records (BCMR).

Gary Noling holding a photo of his daughter Carri Goodwin, a rape victim who died of acute alcohol intoxication less than a week after receiving an Other Than Honorable discharge from the Marines. Because of her discharge, her father has been unable to secure a military burial for her remains. © 2013 Francois Pesant

Thousands of US service members are sexually assaulted every year. Paradoxically, these survivors are 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation from their military peers than their attackers are to be convicted of a sex offense. But the problem doesn’t end during service. Many survivors were forced out of the military for having a “Personality Disorder” – a diagnosis that has symptoms similar to PTSD – making it difficult for them to access benefits to which veterans are entitled. The only way to correct these wrongful discharges is through the BCMR, which rarely overturns these decisions.

After the release of our reports and months of targeted advocacy, the Defense Department Inspector General created a unit to investigate whistleblower cases involving retaliation against sexual assault victims; the Air Force Secretary issued an instruction clarifying that a memo on PTSD applies to sexual assault victims; and the Army and Air Force Boards have indicated that they will create guidelines for board members and staff about consideration of evidence outside of military records that can be used to show a sexual assault occurred, and that will be part of training as well.

We are encouraged by these successes and by the relationships we were able to build with a number of people in Congress through this advocacy, and are grateful for the support from veterans and the Veterans Service Organizations that came together in the Fairness for Veterans Coalition who made this possible. We will continue to work with Congress, veterans groups, and the military in 2017 to ensure meaningful implementation of these key reforms. 

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