It is with great horror and frustration that we must bring you news that the crisis of sexual assault that plagues our military is much worse than it originally seemed. Not only are the assaults committed on a regular basis, a new Human Rights Watch report shows that the victims are silenced, dismissed with a dishonorable discharge and denied the benefits they are entitled to for serving their country. On top of that, sexual assault and harassment survivors report that they are often targeted by other military members with additional hazing, assault, and harassment for trying to speak out.
They often face discharge, many times on false allegations of poor behavior or preexisting mental health conditions that are then used to deny them their veterans’ benefits. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released an extensive report documenting the scope of the problem. (The report includes cases from decades back because these former service members still have not seen justice and suffer the consequences.)
According to HRW, “Commanders are allowed to involuntarily discharge service members to maintain the readiness and discipline of their unit. Because this is seen as necessary to ensure the readiness of the forces, commanders have a great deal of discretion.” The report consolidates thousands of reports from discharged veterans claiming that they were involuntarily discharged after reporting sexual assault or harassment.
Carri Goodwin joined the Marines in 2007 when she was 18 years old. In the short time she was in service, her recruiter assaulted her and a higher-ranking service member beat and sodomized her after ordering her to report to him after work. After reporting her assaults, she still had to work with her assailant. Her journal indicated her peers “all took the assailant’s side” and said, “Don’t talk to her. She will say you raped her.” Her assailant taunted her with emails saying he gave her AIDS. She was not allowed to go on leave because they feared she would go AWOL.
After reporting, her superiors kept finding things she did wrong and she was regularly put on restriction. She coped with her isolation by drinking alcohol. She was also on prescription medication for her PTSD. She was suicidal at times and had difficulties when she was sent to alcohol rehabilitation programs. Her superiors disciplined her for drinking while underage, missing formation, leaving her appointed place of duty, reporting while under the influence of alcohol, breaking restriction, and failure to obey an order. As a result, she was discharged Under Other Than Honorable Conditions for misconduct. Five days after getting home in 2009, at age 20, she was found dead in a car after mixing alcohol and Zoloft, a drug for treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. Because of her misconduct discharge, her father cannot bury her remains in a military cemetery and is unable to honor her by framing her discharge papers. His seven-year effort to upgrade her discharge because of the rapes and PTSD has failed.
Involuntary discharges are marked based on the reason for discharge. An Honorable Discharge conveys that the discharged service member met high standards of military conduct during their service. Anything below an Honorable Discharge (known as “Bad Papers”, including General Under Honorable Conditions Discharge, allege bad behavior and exclude the discharged service member from some or most of their veteran benefits.
A Navy Seaman Apprentice said that after reporting that his shipmate sexually assaulted him in 1983, he found out he was getting discharged because he was “not fit for Naval service” despite having no recent or serious disciplinary infractions. At the time, he had seven months left in his enlistment and he was certain he would receive an honorable discharge. Instead he was given an Other Than Honorable discharge.
Bad papers are scarlet letter on the records of veterans. HRW reports, “Bad paper impacts health care, disability benefits, education, and other forms of support that may be crucial for recovery and reintegration into the civilian world. Veterans with bad paper may face adverse consequences from employers and may not qualify for a range of assistance offered to veterans by states or employers or even service organizations (such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars) that help veterans.”
Involuntary discharges that are instigated as a result of a sexual assault or harassment report often mark the survivor as a sufferer of a personality disorder (PD). PD is a mental health condition with an onset in adolescence, so it is by definition a preexisting condition to military service. A person with PD is considered unfit for service, so diagnosis during service results in a discharge. Discharged survivors claim that they are falsely diagnosed with PD so that the military can get rid of them without owing them benefits. If a service member is discharged for a preexisting condition within 2 years of their start date with the military, they are not eligible for any veterans benefits. Typically PD requires hours of extensive interviews to diagnose; most service members discharged for PD are diagnosed in under thirty minutes.
Third Class Petty Officer Carroll reported sexual harassment by her supervisor to her lieutenant in 1992. The next day she was ordered to get a mental health evaluation. When she objected, she was told she would get a dishonorable discharge for making a false allegation of sexual harassment if she did not go. Six months later when she reported for duty she was told to go to the divisional support person to sign discharge papers. She had no idea she had been diagnosed with personality disorder and has not been diagnosed with it since.
The contents of this HRW report are shocking. We believe that all of our veterans, including survivors of sexual assault and harassment, deserve justice under the law. If Donald Trump or Secretary Clinton truly care about our veterans like they say they do in their campaign speeches, they will take action to rectify this horrifying injustice. This includes swift responses to abuse allegations, fair and medically supported mental health assessments, and due process for discharged service members. Our service men and women sacrifice too much for the sake of their country to be left languishing for decades without justice.
Marisa completed her undergraduate degree in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin with a double major in creative writing and media studies. She is an advocate of progressive policies and focuses her interests on gender equality and preventing sexual and domestic violence.