WASHINGTON — For seven months before she was assaulted at an Air Force base in the south, Shelby Willis, then 18, filed “at least 10 complaints” about the harassment she was being subjected to by a senior airman.
“Within two weeks of filing a report, they [staff sergeants] said I was causing problems,” Willis told CNN. “I constantly had extra duty. I was getting more and more nervous every day. The more they ignored my report, the more arrogant he [the attacker] became.”
Then, having been in the Air Force for less than a year, Willis was sexually assaulted by the airman in 1990.
Willis isn’t her real name. It’s a pseudonym used in a report Thursday from Human Rights Watch that is aimed at drawing attention to what it says are victims of sex assaults in the military who are given improper discharges, rather than the assistance they need, and the problems that causes for them after they are out of the service.
“I went to the commander’s office, she acted like it was nothing. Her main problem was that I didn’t salute to her when I entered the room,” said Willis. “They gave me extra duties…a week after the assault I had to clean the men’s latrines.”
Willis, who Human Rights Watch put in touch with CNN, said she was “recommended for discharge for minor disciplinary offenses.” Her attacker was never formally charged.
The military, in an email to CNN, rejected the report’s conclusions and said it had no idea how Human Rights Watch came up with its calculations because there’s no indication the group reviewed service records.
The 124-page report, titled “Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors,” is based on interviews with 163 victims of sexual assault from all divisions of the military over a 28-month period. It said that many sexual assault victims have been unfairly discharged from the military and, as a result, have suffered a loss of service benefits due to poor discharge records. The report also emphasized the difficulty in getting recourse for “bad discharges.”
Human Rights Watch found the victims through social media — the group created a Facebook page — and worked with rape survivors’ groups and lawyers.
“All too often superior officers choose to expeditiously discharge sexual assault victims rather than support their recovery and help them keep their position,” the report said. “Very few sexual assault survivors we spoke to managed to stay in service.”
Victims have been discharged for “personality disorder,” resulting from trauma caused by sexual assault, according to the report, adding that in some cases victims received a less than an honorable discharge, meaning they can struggle to access veterans’ benefits like healthcare and disability payments.
“The continuing failure of the military services to follow proper procedures in discharging sexual assault victims for mental health reasons underscores the vital importance of meaningful review of their discharges before the military boards,” said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch’s U.S program. “Yet these boards offer little hope for remedying the problem. For the many victims whose records are missing, the chance of having an unjust discharge fixed or even properly reviewed, is next to nothing.”
The Department of Defense was provided a draft summary of the report and disputed its findings, saying it “makes a host of assumptions.”
“There is no indication they (Human Rights Watch) actually reviewed service records, discharge records, or service standards, to objectively assess whether the discharge was right or wrong,” a department spokesman said in an email. “It’s a bit like questioning a diagnosis based on a patient’s version of her doctor visit without actually seeing any of the lab tests, x-rays, prevailing standards of care, or examining the patient at the time.”
The official also said that “many” victims of sexual assault in the military receive honorable discharges and also noted cases where that may not be the case due to other factors that outweigh the victimization, such as drug use or stealing.
The statement also listed an array of assistance and services that are provided to those who reported they have been sexually assaulted. “Every survivor is treated with the sensitivity they deserve,” the spokesperson said.
Human Rights Watch set forth a number of recommendations in the report, including a request for Congress to give military service personnel the chance to have their discharge records formally reviewed. It also proposed that in cases where victims have experienced trauma due to sexual assault, that their records be marked with “completion of service” and not “personality disorder.”
Following her discharge, Willis, who said she suffers from PTSD, agoraphobia and anxiety disorder, was living without benefits and facing growing medical costs. She said she visited eight Veterans Affairs offices to apply for medical benefits before she was finally approved in 2007.
Reflecting how the military dealt with her case, Willis told CNN: “The truth is they didn’t handle it at all. They did nothing, were completely negligent, and for as much effort as they put forth to stop it [the harassment], they may as well have held me down for him.”