Human Rights Watch: Military Isn't Doing Enough to Protect Rape Victims From Retaliation

Illustration for article titled Human Rights Watch: Military Isnt Doing Enough to Protect Rape Victims From Retaliation

A new report from Human Rights Watch says the Pentagon isn’t doing enough to protect military rape victims from retaliation. The report says reporting rape or sexual abuse often leads to harassment that can force survivors out of the military entirely.

The report, which we saw via NPR, says that military rape survivors have little recourse when they’re wrongfully demoted or discharged for reporting their attacks. It follows a similar report produced by Human Rights Watch and the veterans advocacy group Protect Our Defenders last year.

Although the Pentagon has recently started trying to reform how they handle military sexual assault, Human Rights Watch says, “virtually nothing has been done to address the ongoing harm done to thousands of veterans who reported sexual assault before reforms took place and lost their military careers as a result of improper administrative discharges.” They point to people like Juliet Simmons, who was discharged from the Air Force:

Juliet Simmons was drugged and raped in her US Air Force barracks in August 2007. She reported her assault through the proper channels, though her first sergeant made it clear he did not believe her. Although she continued to do her job, got outstanding performance evaluations, and passed her required tests, she was sent for an appointment with an Air Force mental health provider and told she was being discharged for a “Personality Disorder not specified.” Though she appealed, and provided 27 letters from officers and enlisted service members in support of allowing her to stay in the Air Force, she was administratively discharged six days later with a General Under Honorable Conditions discharge. Later, Simmons tried to resume her military career but has been unable to do so due to her type of Air Force discharge.


The report says many of the survivors who claim they were wrongfully discharged were given that “personality disorder” reason. Many of those soldiers were in fact suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They cite the case of Tom O’Brien, a former Army soldier who received a “bad conduct” discharge after he was raped:

Tom O’Brien was gang-raped by three male soldiers while he was on his second tour of duty in the Army in 1982. The soldiers threatened to kill him if he reported. Afterwards, he coped by drinking heavily and as a result was so drunk he failed to report to base. He was then court-martialed for being Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and received a Bad Conduct discharge. In the following years, he continued to drink heavily and was repeatedly arrested. Efforts to get benefits from the US Department of Veterans Affairs failed because the sexual trauma that caused the PTSD occurred during a period of service determined to be dishonorable.

This isn’t a new issue: in 2013, Jessica Hinves said she was raped during her training at an Air Force base and then forcibly discharged for PTSD:

Service members who get a “bad” discharge —anything other than honorable — are usually ineligible for veterans’ benefits and can find their careers permanently compromised. The HRW report says that trying to appeal a bad discharge is virtually impossible. There are Boards for Correction for Military Records (BCMR) for each branch of the military, but appealing to them is incredibly onerous and each board frequently has so many cases, they take only minutes to decide each one:

The Army BCMR often decides 80 cases in a half day of sitting. Nor do the other Boards spend significant time on deliberations. It is estimated that the Army Board averages three minutes and 45 seconds per case, and the Navy averages six minutes and forty-five seconds per case. For the Air Force, deliberations average five to six minutes, though they do receive some material before the session, unlike the Army and Navy. Given what is at stake and the amount of information to be considered, that is woefully inadequate.


It’s yet another example of the achingly, painfully slow process that is reforming the military’s response to rape and sexual assault. As a reminder, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been trying to pass a comprehensive military sexual assault reform bill since 2013. In April, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon officials who testified against the bill gave misleading information about how the military deals with sexual assault reports.

Jessica Hinves. Screenshot via ABC

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.

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The US military budget is orders of magnitude larger than anyone else’s. You’d think after pouring all that money in, they’d want to protect their investment in these soldiers.

Then again, how do you keep a giant hierarchical organization whose purpose exists for engaging in violence free of bad apples? I sincerely hope they find a way. These victims deserve justice.