New Report Says Pentagon Not Doing Enough For Sexual Assault Victims | KUOW News and Information

New Report Says Pentagon Not Doing Enough For Sexual Assault Victims

May 19, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 11:52 am

In 2009, Emily Vorland went to Iraq with the Army for a year, hoping it would lead to a career in special operations. That dream was derailed not by the enemy, but by a superior officer, who started sexually harassing her.

"I said no and then reported it. And my direct chain of command relieved him of his position. However, it was three months later when the retaliation started," she says.

She says that's when the investigation started to focus on her. It came down to a threat of perjury charges, unless she accepted a general discharge. She took that deal, but it was hard to find civilian work because of what it said on her discharge papers.

" 'General under honorable,' and then what they have under there — conduct unbecoming. It was hard to apply for a job."

The military released data this month showing over 6,000 reported sexual assaults during 2015. The real number is likely three or four times higher. Just like in the civilian world, most rape doesn't get reported, and the Pentagon acknowledges this happens in the military because victims fear they — not the perpetrators — will face reprisals from commanders.

Human Rights Watch says in a report today that the Pentagon doesn't do enough to repair the damage from those reprisals.

"It's a common perception in the military that you have to choose between reporting your rape and staying in the military," said Sara Darehshori, who interviewed hundreds of military sexual assault survivors for the organization.

Army veteran Liz Luras didn't even get to make that choice. She says she was raped early in her career, about 15 years ago. The assault put her in the hospital, which triggered an investigation.

"When I walked back onto base, everyone knew that now I wasn't just the soldier doing great things and on a great path," she says. "Now I was the rape victim."

After that, she was raped twice more, she says, and then pushed out of the military. She got an honorable discharge — but her commanders used a category that critics charge has been used to get rape victims, especially women, out of the service quickly.

"Right next to it saying that I have an honorable discharge, it says that I have a personality disorder," she says — despite it never having been diagnosed. "That was handed down just by the decision of my chain of command. It was not anything where I saw a licensed psychologist or clinician."

Men make up the vast majority of the military — 85 percent — and a slight majority of military sexual assault victims, though only 10 percent report the crime, compared with 38 percent of women, according to the Pentagon's most recent report on sexual assault in the military.

Heath Phillips joined the Navy at 17 and says he was raped repeatedly by a group of sailors.

"When you wake up and see six guys doing stuff to each other and to you? I still have nightmares about it," he says. "I am 45 years old, and I still have that vision in my head."

To escape, Phillips went AWOL, repeatedly. The Navy told him he could take an "other-than-honorable" discharge to avoid court martial.

"I was 18 years old, already an alcoholic because I drank to be numb," he says. "I won't lie, I would've signed a deal with the devil at that moment in time."

Anything other than an honorable discharge can carry heavy consequences. It usually means no VA care, no benefits. Phillips says he wound up sometimes homeless, in jail — a drunk for most of 20 years.

"Nothing has been done for the thousands of people who were kicked out after they reported their sexual assault and still have to live with these terrible discharge papers that continue to impact their lives," says Darehshori, with Human Rights Watch.

She says many of them believe incorrectly that a less-than-honorable discharge can be easily upgraded by a Discharge Review Board or the Board of Corrections of Military Records.

"In fact, those bodies are dead ends," says Darehshori. She says they upgrade only a tiny fraction of the cases that come up for review.

"Victims we spoke to are reluctant to go to the boards [and] bare their souls and relive trauma, when they have essentially no chance of being heard," she says.

In 2014, the Pentagon directed the boards to give more weight to issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects many rape survivors. This year, the Pentagon clarified that this applies to vets who may have been rejected previously, or who are past the normal deadlines to apply.

A Pentagon spokesman says the rate of upgrade for those PTSD cases is now near 40 percent, but he says the boards do not track how many sexual assault cases get upgraded. The Pentagon's inspector general released a report this month that found "personality disorder" and other mental health classifications still are being misused to put sexual assault survivors out of the military.

Phillips says that he knows he can't get back any of the 20 years he spent off-course after being raped and kicked out of the Navy, but that getting an upgrade — he was denied in 2013 and is appealing — would mean everything.

"The military will finally admit they were wrong," he says.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. military released data this morning showing over 6,000 reported sexual assaults during 2015. Just like in the civilian world, most rape doesn't get reported. But in the service that - there's an extra reason - fear that the victim - not the perpetrator - will face reprisals from commanders.

The group Human Rights Watch says in a report out today that the Pentagon doesn't do enough to repair the damage from those reprisals. NPR's Quil Lawrence got an early look at their findings.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Emily Vorland went to Iraq for a year with the Army. When a superior officer started sexually harassing her, she followed the rules.

EMILY VORLAND: I said no and then reported it. And my direct chain of command relieved him of his position. However, it was three months later when the retaliation started.

LAWRENCE: The investigation focused on her. She says she was threatened with perjury charges unless she accepted a general discharge. She took it. But it was hard to find civilian work because of what it said on her papers.

VORLAND: General under honorable - and then what they actually have under there is also actions unbecoming of an officer and misconduct. It was hard to apply for a job.

LAWRENCE: The Pentagon has been under intense pressure to crack down on sexual assault. But less attention has been paid to past cases and the damage done to victims who reported the crime and found themselves punished. Army veteran Liz Luras was raped early in her career. It put her in the hospital.

LIZ LURAS: When I walk back onto base, everyone knew that now I wasn't just the soldier that was doing great things and on a great path. Now I was the rape victim.

LAWRENCE: After that, she was raped twice more, she says, and then pushed out of the military. She got an honorable discharge, but...

LURAS: Right next to it saying that I have an honorable discharge, it says that I have a personality disorder. That was handed down just by the decision of my chain of command. It was not anything where I saw a licensed psychologist or clinician.

LAWRENCE: Heath Phillips joined the Navy at 17 and was raped repeatedly by a group of sailors.

HEATH PHILLIPS: When you wake up and you see six guys doing stuff with each other and to you, I still have nightmares about it. I am 45 years old, and I still have that vision in my head.

LAWRENCE: To escape, he went AWOL repeatedly. The Navy told him he could have an other-than-honorable discharge to avoid court-martial.

PHILLIPS: I was 18 years old. I was already an alcoholic because of everything that I drank to be numb. I won't lie. I would've signed a deal with the devil at that moment in time.

LAWRENCE: Anything other than an honorable discharge can carry heavy consequences. It usually means no VA care, no benefits. Heath Phillips wound up sometimes homeless, in jail, a drunk for most of 20 years.

SARA DAREHSHORI: Nothing has been done for the thousands of people who were kicked out after they reported their sexual assault, and still have to live with these terrible discharge papers that continue to impact their lives.

LAWRENCE: Sara Darehshori with Human Rights Watch interviewed hundreds of military sex assault survivors, including the three veterans you just heard. She says the only option for them is the military's boards of review and corrections.

DAREHSHORI: But, in fact, those bodies are dead ends.

LAWRENCE: Darehshori says the boards upgrade between 1 and 10 percent of the time.

DAREHSHORI: The victims we spoke to were reluctant to go to the boards because they know that they have almost no chance of success. And they don't want to bare their souls and relive trauma when they have essentially no chance.

LAWRENCE: In recent years, the Pentagon directed the boards to give more weight to issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, which many rape survivors have. A Pentagon spokesman said the rate of upgrade for those PTSD cases is now near 40 percent. But he said the boards do not track how many sexual assault cases get upgraded. Victims say an upgrade would undo some of the damage.

PHILLIPS: I didn't ask for this to happen. I didn't ask for any of this.

LAWRENCE: Heath Phillips knows he can't get back any of the 20 years he spent off course after being raped and kicked out of the Navy.

PHILLIPS: That was taken away from me. So for me to get an upgrade would mean everything for me. I'm too old now to really care about the other benefits. It's me finally bearing the last chapter of my life because now the military finally will finally admit they were wrong.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.