Military May Be Gaslighting Sexual Assault Victims

Leave it to the U.S. military to find a way to make sexual assault even more awful than it already is. CNN reports that, according to testimony from a number of women across all branches of the armed forces, that women who allege sexual assault are often given a psychiatric diagnosis and discharge in the military's ceaseless effort to protect us regular American citizens from its most pernicious attitudes about gender.

A familiar pattern emerges from the stories that CNN has gathered — a woman is sexually assaulted in a barracks or on a ship by a serviceman and, on reporting the incident to a superior officer, is told something along the lines of, "It never happened." At least that's what happened to Anna Moore, who enlisted in the army after 9/11, planning to have a career in the military. After a non-commissioned officer raped her in the bathroom of her barracks in 2002, Moore's first sergeant tore up the paperwork she had filled out in order to properly report the attack. Other women, such as the Navy's Jenny McClendon, tell of being immediately "diagnosed" with a psychiatric disorder as part of a concerted effort to cover up their sexual assault at the hands of a peer or commanding officer.

In 2011, despite the military's "zero tolerance" policy, 3,191 cases of military sexual assault were reported, a staggering figure that nonetheless is quite possibly, given the frequency of military cover-up, a low estimate. The Pentagon estimates that the actual number of sexual assault cases was closer to 19,000, and though Defense Secretary Leon Panetta deems such a number "unacceptable," Anu Bhaghwati, a former company commander in the Marines and executive director of Service Women's Action Network says that the military has been using psychiatric diagnoses to conveniently jettison women who raise complaints of sexual assault. Says Bhaghwati,

It's convenient to sweep this under the rug. It's also extremely convenient to slap a false diagnosis on a young woman ... and then just get rid of them so you don't have to deal with that problem in your unit. And, unfortunately, a lot of sexual assault survivors are considered problems.

From 2001 to 2011, the military discharged some 31,000 servicemen and women on the basis of personality disorders, though predictably the Defense Department insisted that it doesn't keep records on how many of those discharges involved cases of sexual assault.

For women with no previous history of personal problems stemming from underlying psychiatric conditions to suddenly manifest personality disorders seems peculiar. None of the women profiled by CNN had a history of employment instability or unstable relationships (they'd made it into the military in the first place, after all), yet they were all diagnosed with a personality disorder, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders currently defines as "a long-standing, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior and coping, beginning in adolescence or early adulthood." Neither Moore, McClendon, nor former Marine Stephanie Schroeder seem likely candidates for personality disorders, a fact that Bhaghwati hasn't failed to notice.

These women have clearly been able to function. They've made it through basic training. They've made it through all the follow-on training. Many of them are deployed overseas in war, and they've done fine there. But, when they're sexually assaulted, and then report it, it seems very suspicious that the military would suddenly stamp them with a pre-existing condition that bars them from serving anymore.

Moreover, according to Dr. Liza H. Gold of Georgetown University's School of Medicine, psychiatrists generally try to avoid diagnosing someone with a personality disorder as they're undergoing a traumatic experience, such as sexual assault. Only when symptoms persist after the initial trauma do psychiatrists normally venture into personality disorder territory. By definition, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is another condition that falls outside the realm of personality disorders.

Military women, according to CNN's figures, seem to suffer personality disorders at disproportionate rate. For instance, though women account for only 16% of all soldiers in the regular army, they constitute nearly 24% of all personality disorders. The records that CNN examined do not contain any correlating data about how many women reported sexual assault, a fact that might be more significant because of its absence, since the general sentiment among critics of the military's handling of sexual assault accusations seems to be that the military is using personality diagnoses to cloud the sexual assault data.

Rape victims say military labels them as ‘crazy' [CNN]