‘Labeled for life’: Thousands of sexual assault victims punished by military

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Thousands of US service members have been discharged from the military after reporting a sexual assault or rape, according to a new report, which adds that they are labeled in a way that prevents them from getting jobs or receiving benefits.

A 124-page report from Human Rights Watch claims that, while the military has adopted some reforms to protect current service members who report being assaulted, the military has done nothing to address the numerous past cases in which service members were “unfairly discharged.”

Additionally, those who are given “bad discharges” have little recourse when it comes to contesting their status.

“All too often superior officers choose to expeditiously discharge sexual assault victims rather than support their recovery and help them keep their position,” the report reads. “Very few sexual assault survivors we spoke to managed to stay in service.”

Specifically, the report states that a service member receiving anything other than an honorable discharge receive what’s been described as “bad papers.” After conducting 270 interviews and analyzing documents from government agencies, Human Rights Watch said it found that many veterans who had reported sexual assaults were discharged for “personality disorder,” “adjustment disorder,” or other mental health conditions, which can result in “bad papers” and, therefore, make them ineligible for benefits such as health care, disability benefits, education, and more.

Between the 2001 and 2010 fiscal years, more than 31,000 veterans were discharged for having personality disorders, a disproportionate number of whom were women, the report stated.

“Military rape victims with bad discharges are essentially labeled for life,” Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in the US program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, said in a statement. “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.”

The report went on to say that after such discharges are handed down, veterans can do little to contest them. They can’t sue the military because US law prohibits it, so they are left to appeal to the Boards for Correction of Military Records and the Discharge Review Boards. However, the vast majority of cases sent to these boards (more than 90 percent) are dismissed without ever being heard.

“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, who says she was assaulted in the military, told Human Rights Watch.

The Defense Department was given a summary of the report, though it disputed the findings, questioning the Human Rights Watch’s methods and claiming that it had made “a host of assumptions.”

“There is no indication they (Human Rights Watch) actually reviewed service records, discharge records, or service standards, to objectively assess whether the discharge was right or wrong,” a department spokesman said in an email to CNN. “It’s a bit like questioning a diagnosis based on a patient’s version of her doctor visit without actually seeing any of the lab tests, x-rays, prevailing standards of care, or examining the patient at the time.”

In a response to the report, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, which manages the boards in charge of correcting discharge records, said that it “regularly reviews its procedures and will continue to do so."

The response pointed to reforms passed by Congress that allow for “liberal consideration” to discharged veterans who say they have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or sexual assault.

The Pentagon has encouraged victims of sexual assault to come forward in recent years, leading to a 50 percent spike in reported cases in 2014. After increased exposure and pressure from the public, lawmakers changed the law to make it easier for victims to make their case. For example, according to the new measures, victims can now decide whether to bring their case before a civilian or military court. The “good soldier” defense was also eliminated, meaning defendants can no longer point to their military character to make the case that they wouldn’t have carried out the alleged assault.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced that the number of reports of sexual assault had leveled off since the previous year, amounting to under 6,100 in 2015. However, officials say they are still worried that the number is too high.

“We’re not sure if we’ve plateaued,” Major General Camille Nichols, who leads the department’s sexual assault response team, told ABC News. “It’s too early to tell that, but we do know we haven’t got everybody coming forward to report and we are still on a campaign to make that happen.”

In its recent report, Human Rights Watch listed a number of changes that it believes need to be made. Among them, the group recommends that Congress specifically give victims the right to have their discharge records officially reviewed, and that discharge papers for assault victims read “completion of service,” rather than “personality disorder.”

“Immediate reform is desperately needed to ensure that military sexual assault survivors can get a meaningful remedy for the wrongful discharges that darken their lives,” Darehshori said. “They deserve support, not censure.”