Thousands of United States military service members have lost their military careers after reporting incidents of sexual assault, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch published Thursday.
There were more than 6,000 sexual assaults reported in the military in 2015, the Department of Defense said earlier this month in an annual report. The actual number is likely much higher because rapes in the military frequently go unreported — just like in the civilian world.
The Pentagon acknowledged this in its report, saying that sexual assault victims in the military often fear retaliation from their peers and superiors. But the Human Rights Watch report finds the Defense Department is not doing enough to help these victims.
Many rape victims who suffered trauma after their assaults were unfairly discharged for having a “personality disorder” or other mental health concerns that made them ineligible for benefits, the nonprofit’s report said. Other victims were given “Other Than Honorable” discharges for violations related to the incident around the assault. When service members are given that kind of discharge, they are not able to use the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system or other educational and financial assistance programs typically available for veterans.
“Military rape victims with bad discharges are essentially labeled for life,” said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Not only have they lost their military careers, they have been marked with a status that may keep them from getting a job or healthcare, or otherwise pursuing a normal life after the military.”
Veterans who believe they were unfairly discharged have little recourse, the report found. Under U.S. law, they cannot sue the military for harm related to their service, and the administrative boards responsible for correcting military service members’ records are overwhelmed with thousands of cases.
Military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has gotten more attention in recent years. In 2014, the Defense Department directed those administrative boards to carefully consider issues like PTSD, NPR reported.
Congress has also made it more difficult to discharge combat veterans for mental health issues without checking for PTSD. While many sexual assault survivors do suffer PTSD, they have not been afforded the same protections, the Human Rights Watch report found. The report contains recommendations for ways the Pentagon could improve its handling of sexual assault victims and the repercussions they face after reporting their assaults.