Is the Pentagon doing enough for sexual assault victims?

A report by the Human Rights Watch argues that victims of sexual assault have been given "bad discharge" from the military. 

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
US military generals testify about pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 4, 2013. Some assault survivors are unfairly given "bad discharges," according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

When Roseanne Henderson was raped in 2007 by her Navy recruiter, she reported the incident to her superiors, hoping they would take action. Instead, she says, they told the then-18-year-old, "If we send you back on a ship this will happen again.... You'd be better off serving your country as a Navy wife."

Her discharge, however, mentioned "personality disorder," after officials claimed she was emotionally unstable after the assault, making it difficult to find employment, or proper treatment, she tells Human Rights Watch in "Booted," the organization's new report on the military's response to sexual assault

"Booted," published Thursday, details several accounts of similar cases in which sexually assaulted victims say they were given improper discharge after reporting their assaults, including several who say their discharge papers inaccurately note 'personality disorders' and other mental health issues.

The report, which military officials have strongly contested, comes just a few weeks after the military released data showing a decline in the number of sexual assault cases. 20,000 occur each year, it estimates, but far fewer are reported: only 6,000 in 2015, for example. The decline in reporting is bad news for an organization trying to build victims' trust, as The Christian Science Monitor's Anna Mulrine reported. 

"There is no indication [HRW] actually reviewed service records, discharge records, or service standards, to objectively assess whether the discharge was right or wrong," a Department of Defense spokesman told CNN, cautioning that some less than honorable discharges may have stemmed from unrelated problems, such as drug use. 

The armed forces have made a growing effort to fight sexual assault, a problem that has plagued them for decades, with initiatives ranging from special counsels for victims, to "bystander intervention" approaches that encourage peers to step in and stop aggressive behavior. 

Yet Human Rights Watch (HRW) contends that much remains undone, especially for victims assaulted before more recent reforms. 

The 124-page report, which draws from 270 in-person and telephone interviews, as well as documents procured through public record requests, finds that some victims received a less than honorable discharge, meaning they were ineligible for some of the military benefits, including some healthcare, education, and financial assistance programs.

"A less than honorable discharge is deeply stigmatizing and may result in discrimination, as the services themselves warn departing service members," the report notes.  

Though less than honorable discharges may can be upgraded after a review by the Discharge Review Board or the Board of Corrections of Military Records, only a tiny fraction of those cases make to the board.

"The continuing failure of the military services to follow proper procedures in discharging sexual assault victims for mental health reasons underscores the vital importance of meaningful review of their discharges before the military boards," Sara Darehshori, HRW's senior counsel for its US program, told CNN. "Yet these boards offer little hope for remedying the problem. For the many victims whose records are missing, the chance of having an unjust discharge fixed or even properly reviewed, is next to nothing."

The report also includes a list of recommendations, including that discharged personnel be able to have their records reviewed, and that the military mark assault survivors' records with "completion of service" rather than "personality disorder."  

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