Military sexual assault: Betrayal and retaliation for service members
“Sexual assault is not what messes you up. It is the reprisals, the hazing. I could recover from the assault, but nothing is done for the retaliation,” said Ashely Parker, a former Army specialist. .
She is far from alone in this experience. Both female and male military personnel who report sexual assault are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see their attacker convicted of a sex offense, according to the new report Embattled: Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the US Military, conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), with support from Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that works with survivors. Further, Defense Department surveys found that 62 percent of survivors who report sexual assault experience retaliation.
Sexual assault is a significant problem in the military. The Pentagon's latest study found there were an estimated 18,900 sexual assaults last year alone, and of those, only 6,131 were officially reported. The new HRW report, which is informed by 255 interviews, brings to light how often the reality of retaliation forces survivors to choose between reporting their assaults and keeping their military careers.
“Reporting sexual assault in the military is an act of valor,” said Meghan Rhoad, a HRW women’s rights researcher, during the report release at the National Press Club. “And it’s an act of valor that is not rewarded but is punished.”
Many survivors interviewed for the report said they faced professional retaliation, such as suddenly receiving poor performance evaluations, being transferred from jobs like intelligence work to garbage collecting duty, being denied important trainings or steps in their promotion track, and other acts that derailed or ended their careers. One woman said she was up for a promotion when she reported a sexual assault, and afterward a colleague told her that a wing commander said, “Over my dead body will she get promoted now.” Indeed, instead of receiving a promotion, she was demoted twice.
Survivors also spoke about facing retaliation that included bullying, ostracism, and threats. One survivor said that within six months of his report, he had been “physically attacked twice and verbally belittled” by peers and noncommissioned officers. Some survivors who reported an assault also found themselves being prosecuted for minor “collateral misconduct” offenses such as underage drinking or fraternization.
The report reveals the failure of military mechanisms to remedy the harm done to victims or punish those responsible for retaliation. “Survivors we work with tell us the betrayal of the corrupt system is even more traumatic than the assault,” said Miranda Peterson, program and policy director at Protect Our Defenders.
In the civilian workplace, if an employee is retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment or assault, they can bring a lawsuit against their employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or quit their job. Neither is an option for military personnel.
Instead, military members have nine avenues available to them, though only three, HRW says, are viable: seeking a military protective order, requesting an expedited transfer, or transfer for safety to another duty station. None of these options includes holding perpetrators accountable, and often a transfer results in a survivor being labeled a “troublemaker.”
Among the six nonviable options is the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which allows survivors to seek redress from the Department of Defense Inspector General if they face professional retaliation. Defense Department data suggest there has not been a single case in which a sexual assault survivor who faced retaliation was helped in any way by the law.
“We can’t stop all sexual assaults in the military, but we can make sure all survivors are treated properly when they report their assault,” said Sara Darehshori, senior U.S. counsel at HRW and co-author of the report. Rhoads agreed and noted that “ending retaliation is necessary to effectively end sexual assault in the military.”
To this end, the report offers several pages of recommendations. Two of the top recommendations include asking the United States Congress to strengthen the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and to prohibit disciplinary action or criminal charges against victims for minor crimes that only come to light because of the sexual assault report. Asking the Defense Department to expand the Special Victims Counsel program and nonmilitary options for mental health care were two others.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has been a vocal advocate for removing decisions to prosecute sex crimes from commanders and giving that authority to prosecutors. She said in a statement, “We keep hearing how previous reforms were going to protect victims and make retaliation a crime. Yet there has been zero progress on this front.”
She plans to work to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act—which would take military sexual assault cases outside the chain of command—when the full Senate debates the 2016 national defense authorization act in June.
Ultimately, Darehshori emphasized at the event that “the military has the tools to discipline people who are acting improperly. They need to use them.”