Report: Sexual assault victims wrongfully discharged from military

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Thousands of sexual assault survivors have been wrongfully discharged from the U.S. military for personality disorders and other mental health conditions that make them ineligible for benefits, according to a report out Thursday by two human rights groups.

While the Pentagon has enacted reforms to protect sexual assault victims and make it harder to quickly dismiss service members for mental health conditions, the report adds, little has been done to address those who were discharged before the reforms.

{mosads}“Tens of thousands of men and women have been given a less than honorable discharge and a personality disorder diagnosis when they are really suffering from [post-traumatic stress disorder], either because of combat or sexual assault,” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said at a news conference. “It’s clearly a slap in the face to men and women who have dedicated their lives serving us.”

The 124-page report, “Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors,” was the result of a 28-month investigation by Human Rights Watch with help from Protect Our Defenders that included 270 in-person and telephone interviews, examination of documents and data analysis.

Accurately diagnosing personality disorder is difficult, according to the report, which says the in-depth examination required for proper diagnosis often didn’t happen.

In one case cited in the report, a major who had been declared fit for service by a civilian psychiatrist in 2007 was diagnosed with personality disorder after one session with a military doctor because she “kept talking about her case.” That officer was recommended for involuntary discharge from the National Guard after 23 years of service.

In another case, a woman in the Navy deployed to Japan was told that her “personality doesn’t suit the needs of the Navy” after one session that lasted less than a half hour, according to the report.

Sexual assault victims have also been wrongly discharged for adjustment disorder, misconduct and other reasons that don’t qualify for benefits, researchers found.

They also face the stigma of having a less-than-honorable discharge that affects home loans, custody battles and burial rights, among other issues, the report adds.

Those who have been discharged have little recourse because Discharge Review Boards are “broken, ridiculous, and awful,” a veterans lawyer told researchers.

The report lists a slew of recommendations for the Pentagon, Congress and the Department of Veteran Affairs to take up to correct the problem. For example, the report says, Congress should create a right to a hearing before the Boards for Correction for Military Records for those who have not had an opportunity to be heard at the Discharge Review Boards.

The report also says the secretary of Defense should issue a directive creating a presumption in favor of changing the reason for discharge from personality disorder to “Completion of Service” in cases where the victim has experienced trauma and has not otherwise been diagnosed with personality disorder by an independent physician.

Pingree said the Pentagon can expedite the review process without congressional action. She and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) plan to send a letter to the Pentagon later Thursday asking them to do so but are preparing legislation if officials don’t act.

In a written response to the report, the Pentagon said it has previously issued guidance on how the boards should review cases of those claiming PTSD or related conditions.

“All of these changes in the last 18 months provide liberal consideration to every veteran, including sexual assault victims, who asserts PTSD or mental health issues as a basis for relief at these boards,” Paul Kantwill, director of the Office of Legal Policy, wrote in a letter to Human Rights Watch. “The department regularly reviews its procedures and will continue to do so, always placing emphasis on serving service members, veterans and their families with justice, equity and compassion.”

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