Washington: Shelby Willis, then 18, filed at least 10 complaints about the harassment she was experiencing 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.”
Willis was sexually assaulted by the airman in 1990, though being in the Air Force for less than a year.
“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.”
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’ searched 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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”