A scathing report released today by Human Rights Watch exposes the scope of unpunished retaliation military victims face after reporting a sexual assault — from isolation, bullying, and harassment to demotions or discharges that can destroy a military career.
“Military service members who reported sexual assault were 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation for doing so than to see their offender, if also a service member, convicted for a sex offense,” reads the summary of the report.
Some 62 percent of active duty service members who report a sexual assault are retaliated against in some way, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the RAND Corporation for the Department of Defense.
Human Rights Watch, an international human rights watchdog group, reports finding only two instances where people faced disciplinary action for retaliating against a sexual assault victim.
The group interviewed more than 250 survivors for the report. Their stories of being ostracized, attacked, and punished by peers and superiors after reporting a sexual assault paint a harrowing picture.
“Within 6 months I had been physically attacked twice and verbally belittled by no less than six senior NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] as well as my entire platoon of peers. It wasn’t until I started drinking so heavily and failing at physical fitness that my Chief then finally found me a real counselor almost a year after being there. By then a certain Sergeant in my platoon had told me he would kill me if we ever went to Afghanistan because friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens,” wrote a former soldier.
Other victims spoke of being similarly threatened with physical violence; having their property vandalized; being publicly humiliated online and throughout the barracks.
One high-ranking military official interviewed by researchers acknowledged that the retaliation was routinely accepted by commanders. “The shunning spanned the ranks. Peers, supervisors, officers, and enlisted. If you made waves, rocked the boat, you were an issue and some[one who] threatened mission success and accomplishment.”
For many survivors, the retaliation reaches into their professional life, resulting in criminal charges for minor offenses, demotions, negative evaluations, and discharges that can effectively end a military career.
SYSTEMIC FAILURES IN RESPONDING TO RETALIATION
Perhaps the most critical part of the report addresses the alleged failure by military officials to respond effectively to complaints of retaliation by victims of sexual assault. Researchers found that there were a few actions that did actually help victims–namely, granting military protective orders or transfers to different stations.
But when it came to remedying retaliation or holding wrongdoers accountable, there was almost no adequate response by military officials, researchers said.
Service members can make a complaint either to the Inspector General for the Department of Defense, or for their respective service branch. Human Rights Watch researchers found, however, that between 2004 and 2013, the DoD Inspector General received only 38 such complaints and did not substantiate a single one.
LACK OF REMEDIES AFTER RETALIATION
The report also examined avenues for corrective action after the retaliation occurred, focusing on the Board for Correction of Military Records — an internal military panel meant to correct injustices on service members’ records, like reversing a demotion or improper discharge after a service member reported an assault.
A Fusion investigation into the Army’s corrections Board last fall found that the Board almost never granted changes requested in appeals from military sexual assault victims or for whistleblowers in general. Human Rights Watch researchers came to a similar conclusion.
“In practice, record corrections almost never happen for sexual assault victims or for military whistleblowers generally,” reads the report. “Of all military whistleblower complaints, less than 1 percent receive some form of relief from the records boards.”
In fact, the researchers found that “alleged perpetrators of sexual assault sought and received corrections in their records from the Boards far more often than victims.”
An analysis of Board decisions from Human Rights Watch found that perpetrators of sexual assault who applied to the Board for relief outnumbered victims of military rape by almost 4 to 1. And their appeals were granted by the Boards twice as often as those of victims.
REFORMING THE SYSTEM
The report acknowledges that many of the reforms that have been put into place in the last several years to address sexual assault in the military have been effective, for instance, creating Special Victims Counsel programs. But it calls for bigger changes, like prohibiting disciplinary action or criminal charges against victims of sexual assault and strengthening the Military Whistleblower Protections Act, granting military members the same protections as civilians.
A bill introduced two weeks ago by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) would amend the Military Whistleblowers Protections Act, requiring the investigating Inspector General to recommend disciplinary actions against retaliators and complicit supervisors among other changes.
The bill also makes sweeping reforms to the Boards for Correction of Military Records, requiring in-person hearings and changing Board membership to full-time positions, rather than volunteer jobs. Fusion’s investigation found that these factors often led the Board to make cursory case reviews.
“Right now, correction board members spend an average of 4 minutes reviewing complex cases,” said Senator Barbara Boxer. “Under my bill, these board members would serve full-time to ensure that every service member’s appeal gets the attention it deserves.”
“Reports tell us that soldiers are discharged for things they never did, diseases they never had, and activities that were actually lawful under the Uniform Code of Military Justice—but because of the broken Board of Corrections for Military Records (BCMR) system, nobody ever sets the record straight. That’s why reforming this system is crucial to protect soldiers who report sexual harassment and expose wrongdoing,” said Representative Jackie Speier.
Human Rights Watch researchers said they reached out to the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and received responses to its findings, which are included in the full report. The organization said it did not receive a response from the Department of Defense Inspector General.