The Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2012. But often, the sexual assault is just the beginning of the ordeal. Soldiers and advocates say many victims face retribution, unfair discharges and questionable psychological diagnoses. And now, a Fusion investigation has found that the one place service members can go to overturn these discharges often fails them.
The Board for Correction of Military Records (BCMR) is the only place within the Army with the power to change anything on a service member’s record. The Board can change a veteran’s discharge, including granting a medical discharge for service-connected disabilities, like PTSD caused by sexual assault. But we found that hardly ever happens.
“Everyone that came to me had already tried whatever internal remedies that existed and had not found them sufficient,” said Susan Burke, an attorney who represents victims of sexual assault, including those featured in the documentary The Invisible War.
“There are several points of failure in the system” that deals with sexual assault in the military, said Nancy Parrish, Director of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group. “The Boards are one of those.”
Fusion analyzed thousands of publicly available decisions for three common discharges from 2001 through 2012 that disqualified veterans from military benefits. We found that not one of 23 applicants who sought to overturn a discharge where sexual assault was a factor was successful. Fusion only had access to the Board’s decisions, which we found do not always mention evidence brought by applicants regarding sexual assault, so it’s possible more victims of sexual assault appealed. Even so, advocates and veterans say the system is so inaccessible and it is so difficult to get the grounds for a discharge changed, most do not even attempt it.
Why survivors don’t apply
“Very few try to fight it,” said Liz Luras. “To even get to that point is such a huge obstacle. And you wonder, if they didn’t follow the process in the beginning, why would they now?”
Luras loved being in the Army and excelled as a soldier.
“I had a top secret clearance. I broke codes for the Army. They’d said we’re gonna put you up for West Point preparatory,” said Luras. “That was right before the first rape.”
Then she was raped again. And again. For months following the assaults, Luras says she experienced intense retaliation by superiors and other soldiers, like being reprimanded and punished for small infractions and being hazed. She requested a move to a new unit.
“I didn’t want to be working next to my rapist,” said Luras. “They said they wouldn’t do it.”
Instead, Luras was forced out of the Army. Her discharge said it was because she had a pre-existing Personality Disorder, a “deeply ingrained, maladaptive” psychological condition, that made her unfit to serve. Luras is one of many women discharged with that condition after reporting sexual assault, according to veterans and their advocates. While women make up only 16% of the Army, they account for almost a quarter of the branch’s Personality Disorder discharges, according to numbers obtained by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
The discharge left Luras ineligible for medical benefits to treat PTSD from the assaults. It also kept her from accessing GI Bill educational benefits, since she was kicked out before completing her enlistment contract.
Luras says she was never evaluated for a Personality Disorder. She has medical proof of the first assault since she was hospitalized. But she hasn’t appealed her discharge to the Board.
“I know I have a strong case,” said Luras. “But even though all the evidence is there, no one is holding them accountable for their decisions. I’ve heard about them making bad decisions … That’s my fear – it becomes very overwhelming.”
Luras was eventually able to get healthcare coverage from the VA for PTSD due to military sexual trauma. But it’s significantly limited compared to coverage she’d get if she had a medical discharge from the Army, and she has to relive the trauma of her assaults every time she reapplies for VA benefits.
“With a military disability you wouldn’t be revictimized for years on end,” said Luras. “I had to take three days off work before the hearing, I was so emotional leading up to it.”
Appeals that go nowhere
Like Luras, Anna Moore was discharged with a Personality Disorder following a sexual assault and what she says were months of retribution.
“I was a good soldier, I was breaking battalion records, after [reporting an assault], I was a piece of crap,” said Moore. “Every time I turned around I got in trouble for all kinds of stuff I didn’t do.”
In 2012, Moore decided to appeal to the BCMR seeking a medical discharge for service-connected PTSD. She included a VA decision, rating her 70% disabled due to PTSD, along with other records.
The Board denied her, stating that, while “the applicant’s experiences with her chain of command are deeply regrettable,” there was no evidence she suffered from PTSD at discharge.
“They ignore anything they don’t like,” said Moore. “It feels like an insurmountable mountain.”
In one case Fusion reviewed, an applicant stated that she was raped repeatedly by a fellow soldier who was never punished. She ultimately conceived and bore a child as a result of the rapes. She was diagnosed with PTSD by a military doctor, and her medical file contained a history of sexual assault and head trauma while in the military. One month after her PTSD diagnosis she was discharged for a pre-existing “condition, not disability” that disqualified her from benefits.
The Board denied her request for a medical discharge concluding that while she had a “military diagnosis of PTSD,” the physician “preparing her mental health evaluation stated she did not have a mental disorder.” The Board went on to reason that while she was diagnosed with PTSD during the physical for her separation from the Army, “PTSD is not mentioned elsewhere,” on the form.
“Absent evidence that the applicant was suffering from PTSD,” she was not eligible for a medical discharge, ruled the Board.
Despite how challenging getting a discharge overturned is, advocates are quickly learning that the Board process is part of getting justice for victims of military sexual assault.
“We’ve been trying to get more attorneys on board to do these, just because of the abysmal rates of people doing this on their own,” said Miranda Petersen, program and policy director of Protect Our Defenders. The group has been able to overturn one psychological diagnosis for bipolar disorder, with “a tremendous amount of resources on our part.”
Sarah Bercaw, the director of the Army BCMR, says the Board’s staff reviews all applications carefully and thoroughly.
“We want to get it right,” she said. “Above all else, we want to make sure we give these soldiers, veterans and family members the best opportunity to get that justice that they’re looking for.”