Many US military personnel who reported being raped or sexually assaulted by other armed service members have been discharged on erroneous mental health grounds.

But being assigned a mental disorder – one they were never even diagnosed with – has life-long consequences for veterans. They can be denied health benefits, job opportunities, or even custody of their children. They can’t get security clearances and may even be stripped of their rights to make medical and legal decisions.

Gary Noling holding dogtags belonging to 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 François Pesant

The military’s discharge review boards are responsible for correcting any errors in service members’ discharge papers. Yet Human Rights Watch’s research found that – when it came to the wrongful discharge of rape survivors – this rarely happens. Most applications are rejected, often without meaningful review. Our 2016 report found that the review boards’ strict timelines for deciding cases and insufficient resources to handle the workload contributed to the large backlog of cases and the cursory review process.

Allocating more funding to the review boards could help the military ensure sufficient staff and resources to help the boards perform their important work. As a recent congressional report noted, despite a decrease in the size of the military, the number of service members seeking review has likely increased. If the Trump administration achieves its goal of growing the military after years of downsizing, the problem of over-extended review boards will only be exacerbated.

Augmenting the budget of review board agencies is a minimal investment that could have a tremendous impact on people’s lives, particularly survivors of military sexual trauma.

As congress gears up to work on the 2018 Defense Authorization and Appropriation bills, which establish priorities across the military, it should remember that the military depends on the service members who comprise it. That includes former service members who may have been wrongfully discharged.

Ensuring military boards have sufficient resources to fairly adjudicate applications and eliminate the backlog would send a big message at a small cost.

Thousands of United States service members, who lost their military careers after reporting a sexual assault, live with stigmatizing discharge papers.