The United States Congress should enact a proposed law to prevent military sexual assault victims from being wrongfully discharged and help veterans remedy improper records, Human Rights Watch said today. The bipartisan Protecting Military Honor Act was introduced in the House of Representatives on July 12, 2017, by Republican representative Jaime Herrera Beutler and Democratic representative Niki Tsongas. Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced the bill in the Senate.
“The US government has done little to help victims of military sexual assault living with stigmatizing wrongful discharges,” said Sara Darehshori, senior US counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should pass the Protecting Military Honor Act to ensure that veterans have the same due process rights that civilians have when their property, honor, and reputation are at stake.”
The Protecting Military Honor Act would make it harder to discharge traumatized sexual assault survivors for “personality disorder” or other mental health conditions that may not qualify them for disability benefits and may block them from health care covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It would expand current protections intended to prevent combat veterans from being erroneously discharged for conditions resulting from trauma to include sexual assault victims – who, studies show, are even more likely than combat veterans to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The bill would also strengthen legal protections against retaliation for reporting illegal conduct, including sexual assault and sexual harassment. Department of Defense surveys indicate more than a third of service members who have reported sexual assaults believe they have experienced professional retaliation as a result. Yet very few have succeeded in invoking whistleblower protection claims because of the high burden of proof.
Until two years ago, not a single sexual assault survivor had been protected by the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which is their sole recourse if they believe they experienced reprisals after reporting their assault. The Protecting Military Honor Act would bring the Military Whistleblower Protection Act standards in line with best practices and standards for civilians, thereby removing barriers to reporting sexual assault.
Over the past three years, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the serious problems sexual assault survivors in the military encounter after reporting an assault to authorities. The report, “Embattled: Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the US Military,” found 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 new assaults, threats, and harassment to poor work assignments, loss of promotion opportunities, disciplinary action including discharge, and even criminal charges.
A follow-up report, “Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors,” found that many US military rape victims suffering from trauma were unfairly discharged for a “personality disorder” or other mental health condition that makes them ineligible for benefits. Other survivors 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. Such discharges affect employment, child custody, health care, disability payments, burial rights – virtually all aspects of life.
“When service members see that those who report assaults are demoted, discharged, or otherwise punished, they will keep silent,” Darehshori said. “Until Congress and the military put in place meaningful legal protections for survivors, like those in the Protecting Military Honor Act, the military will not be able to successfully tackle the problem of sexual assault in its ranks.”
The following are quotes from rape survivors and advocates interviewed by Human Rights Watch, or contained in documents Human Rights Watch reviewed.
“I carry my discharge as an official and permanent symbol of shame, on top of the trauma of the physical attack, the retaliation and its aftermath.”
– Brian Lewis, March 2013
“I was 18 years old, was a mental mess, and was terrified to be back aboard [the ship] any longer than I had to. I wasn’t protected, I wasn’t helped, I wasn’t safe from any type of harm! So how did I actually know what I was signing or even in fact what an OTH [Other Than Honorable] discharge was to mean? How was I to know that from all the sexual attacks that I had to suffer and the harassment, assaults, threats to my life and safety that for all these years [the discharge would be] a huge factor to how I lived and how my life ended up?”
– Heath Phillips, October 2013
“It is bad enough to go through military sexual trauma, but to be discredited and labeled is difficult to overcome and causes so much damage. PD [Personality Disorder] is another level of betrayal because it is so stigmatizing.… People think there is something wrong with me and don’t realize it was a label just stuck on people.”
– “PFC Eva Washington” (pseudonym), October 2013
“I have practiced law in Texas for 31 years now, and I’ve appeared in different state and federal courts in a variety of administrative settings and this is the only time that I’ve been before a discharge review board. It was a horrific experience … I found myself being cut off and my client being screamed at which was unlike any experience I have ever had before. My client was just completely re-victimized. They didn’t really care what we had to say. We got a decision a few months later that was erroneous in a number of different respects … and it was a 5-nothing decision not to upgrade.”
– JoAnn Merica, attorney for a veteran who was discharged for misconduct after reporting sexual harassment, March 2016
“If I had to do anything over, I would have never reported it to the IG [Inspector General]. That’s what set them off…. I went to the IG and that’s when the administrative punishments and all that started to happen. That’s when they tried to start kicking me out of the military.”
– "Sam Davis" (pseudonym), Air Force master sergeant, who suffered numerous reprisals in 2011, including criminal charges, after reporting a sexual assault, March 2015. He was acquitted of all charges at a court martial, but the IG was unable to undo the damage to his career.
“Sexual assault is not what messes you up. It is the reprisals, the hazing. I could recover from the assault but nothing is done for the retaliation.”
– "Ashley Parker" (pseudonym), former Army specialist, who said she was targeted, isolated, and harassed after reporting her assault, December 2013. A friend told her that the platoon sergeant told them not to talk to her, and if they did “they would face charges under the [Uniform Code of Military Justice].” Parker left the Army in 2013.