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Report: Retaliation against sex assault victims rampant

Sexual Assault in the Military
Photo Credit: Staff

For a soldier identified only as "Roy Carter," the attacks didn't stop after he was sexually assaulted by a male soldier in another platoon in 2012.

After "Carter" reported his assault, he was attacked twice more within six months.

He was mocked and belittled by at least six senior non-commissioned officers and other soldiers in his platoon.

A sergeant in his platoon threatened to kill him if they ever went to Afghanistan because, as "Carter," a pseudonym, said, the sergeant told him, "friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens."

He began drinking heavily, failing his physical fitness tests and even started carrying a knife to protect himself from his fellow soldiers.

Carter is one of 150 sexual assault survivors interviewed about retaliation for reporting sexual assaults for a 113-page report issued May 18 by Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization that focuses on defending human rights around the world.

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with sexual assault survivors across the military since October 2013. Many survivors said the retaliation they suffered — including bullying, isolation and damage to their careers — was actually worse than the assaults.

Echoes of Carter's story appear throughout the report, from the testimony of women, and some other men, of many ranks in all services. And many of them end as Carter's does: The attacks never stopped. About a year after his sexual assault, Carter told investigators that someone tried to stab him in a bar while repeatedly screaming for him to die and calling him a homophobic slur.

"That was when I told my captain that I wanted a discharge before I ended up dead on the evening news," Carter is quoted as saying in the Human Rights Watch report.

The report, "Embattled: Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the U.S. Military," found that sexual assault victims who report what happened to them often face retaliation — both professional and social. That retaliation can end careers, lead to the victims themselves being prosecuted for offenses such as underage drinking or adultery, result in ostracism that makes it difficult for victims to heal and lead some to attempt suicide, the report said.

The pervasive retaliation "has a significant chilling effect on survivors' willingness to come forward to report sexual assault in the military," the report said.

"The U.S. military's progress in getting people to report sexual assaults isn't going to continue as long as retaliation for making a report goes unpunished," said Sara Darehshori, a senior U.S. counsel at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. "Ending retaliation is critical to addressing the problem of sexual assault in the military."

In a written statement to Military Times, Defense Department spokeswoman Laura Seal said Pentagon officials appreciate the research done by Human Rights Watch, are very concerned about retaliation and agree that "ending retaliation is critical to effectively addressing sexual assault in the military."

"Truly understanding the stressors our survivors face is the only way we can provide them with adequate support and responsive care," Seal said. "Supporting our survivors not only ensures that we are upholding our commitment to them, but also makes it more likely that others will come forward with unrestricted reports — the only way we can hold perpetrators appropriately accountable."

The Pentagon's latest report on sexual assault earlier this month found there were about 18,900 sexual assaults in the military last year, 6,131 of which were reported.

A 2014 survey conducted by the think tank Rand as part of that study found that 62 percent of women who reported unwanted sexual contact to military authorities experienced some form of retaliation. More than half of those women said they were retaliated against socially.

The Rand study also found 35 percent of women reporting sexual assault suffered an adverse administrative action, 32 percent suffered professional retaliation and 11 percent were punished for infractions after reporting. Similar statistics for male sexual assault victims were not available.

The retaliation sometimes severely damaged victims' careers. Several said that after they reported their assaults, they received poor performance evaluations, punishments for petty infractions, were assigned to demeaning jobs such as picking up garbage and lost opportunities for promising assignments.

According to the report, some troops said they were threatened by their fellow service members after coming forward about their assaults. One female airman said she was called a "bitch," told that she got what she deserved and that she "better sleep light," the report said.

A female Marine's name and photo was posted on a Facebook page that other Marines commented on. "Find her, tag her, haze her, make her life a living hell," someone wrote on the page, the report said, and another said she should be silenced "before she lied about another rape."

A Navy petty officer told Human Rights Watch she was assaulted by a cook during a deployment in 2011. The cook's colleagues harassed her so much that she couldn't eat in the mess hall, and she said her commanding officers did nothing even after she complained several times.

"For seven months while on deployment, she ended up buying her own food when she was in ports and 'living off cans of tuna,' " the report said.

A DoD panel on sexual assault response last year found that some troops may lash out at those who report sexual assaults because they feel the victims are dividing the unit.

That also may be why leaders often ignored complaints about retaliation, the report said, and in some cases also retaliated against those reporting their assaults.

"The shunning spanned the ranks," one anonymous Air Force senior master sergeant told Human Rights Watch. "Peers, supervisors, officers and enlisted. If you made waves, rocked the boat, you were an issue and [someone who] threatened mission success and accomplishment."

The report quotes a Marine lance corporal who said her friends were told they would receive non-judicial punishments if they continued associating with her. As a result of her ostracism, she told investigators, "I was alone all the way until the end."

"She was discharged in June 2012 after being charged with 'destruction of government property' for hurting herself after attempting suicide," the report said.

The career consequences of those who report assaults can be severe. A senior airman identified as "Beth Robinson" reported a sexual assault in late 2013 and cried during a meeting about her concerns regarding living directly across from her alleged perpetrator.

Robinson, who was a security forces officer, had her weapon taken from her "because she was considered 'emotional,' " the report said.

But because she was in security forces, not being allowed a weapon meant she couldn't do her job. While the investigation into her assault was ongoing, the report said, Robinson received what she called her "dream deployment" — which she could not go on because she wasn't allowed to carry a gun.

Her commander told Robinson she would get her arms back when her case was finished, so she decided to withdraw her participation in the case. That didn't work, according to the report: Robinson said her squadron commander told her she was "unable to get off the train" and could not get back her weapons and deploy.

In another case, a technical sergeant in the Air National Guard, "Brenda Phillips," received national recognition for her work designing training programs and received awards for doing extra work.

After she reported her assault while up for promotion in 2010, the report said, Phillips was moved to a different area and lost her promotion. According to Phillips, a colleague overheard her wing commander say, "Over my dead body will she get promoted now." Phillips lost her training job and was demoted twice before retiring in April 2013.

Other troops said they received letters of reprimand or counseling — which can severely damage service members' chances of future promotions — for minor infractions such as wearing the wrong socks or being on crutches due to an injury.

Sometimes the act of reporting sexual assaults opened the victims themselves to prosecution. An Air Force officer identified as "Erica Smith" reported being sexually assaulted by a civilian contractor while serving abroad. She had just ended an extramarital relationship with that contractor when she was assaulted, and admitted that to investigators.

Her squadron commander started the process for giving her an Article 15 nonjudicial punishment for adultery, before her Special Victims Counsel convinced the commander to reduce it to a letter of reprimand.

Other assault victims have been punished because they admitted to underage drinking or drunk driving when reporting their assault, the report said.

Troops who suffer sexual assault have complications civilian survivors do not, the report said: Service members commit to the military for several years and cannot simply quit their jobs to get away from their perpetrators or co-workers who harass them.

And because troops pride themselves on looking out for one another, the trauma that comes from a sexual assault is compounded, the report said.

"Everyone is told from day one that the military is your family," an unnamed Navy officer said in the report. "We've got your back. You can trust these people. If you are sexually assaulted, it takes on an incestuous dynamic. It is that level of betrayal. Then it goes to your command. If the command handles it badly, that's another level of betrayal. Every time the system fails, another layer of betrayal."

Human Rights Watch recommended that Congress overhaul the Military Whistleblower Protection Act to provide service members the same level of protection provided to civilians when reporting sexual assault, and that Congress prohibit criminal charges or disciplinary actions against survivors for minor misconduct — such as underage drinking — that would not have come to light if the victim hadn't reported the assault.

The group also recommended that DoD department expand initiatives such as the Special Victims Counsel program — which it lauded as "a singularly powerful reform" — as well as expedite transfers and develop non-military options for mental health care.

The report also said systems and individuals in the military that take retaliation seriously should be rewarded, and anyone who retaliates against victims or turns a blind eye to retaliation should be punished.

Seal, the DoD spokeswoman, said the department already is taking steps to address the issue of retaliation, noting that the military asks survivors about negative consequences they face after reporting an assault.

Commanders are also holding monthly meetings at installations to monitor cases for retaliation and forward allegations to the proper authorities for investigation and follow-up, she said.

DoD is developing a department-wide strategy to prevent retaliation in reporting of all crimes, conducting training for first-line supervisors to lead sexual assault and prevention programs, conducting a comprehensive review of policies and procedures on retaliation, and expanding the military's awareness campaign on reporting options for those who experience retaliation after reporting assault, she said.

DoD is also changing the questions it will ask on future surveys to better collect information on retaliation.

"As Human Rights Watch notes in their report, department reforms to protect the rights of sexual assault victims show promise and have only begun to demonstrate their potential," Seal said. "The department will continue to engage survivors, as well as outside experts, to facilitate recovery for victims of this crime."

Human Rights Watch said whistleblower protections aren't working because service members aren't sufficiently aware that inspector general protections are available to them, or they don't want to tell their story again.

The report said many troops tend to view IG offices as "toothless and ineffective," or not impartial because it is not independent enough from their parent commands. Some service members told Human Rights Watch that they experienced negative consequences after going to the IG.

Bridget Serchak, spokeswoman for the DoD Office of Inspector General, said that takes its lead role in whistleblower protection very seriously.

"In addition to conducting and oversighting whistleblower reprisal and restriction investigations, we conduct outreach about whistleblower protections across the department, including in-person training events and webinars, and we maintain a robust online presence," Serchak said in an email.

"We look forward to redoubling our outreach efforts to most effectively reach sexual assault victims, their advocates, and the broader community about their rights under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act."

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