How the Military Retaliates Against Sexual Assault Victims
Jessica Hinves didn’t want to report her rape.
A young airman who’d grown up in a military family, Hinves was afraid of jeopardizing her career. She didn’t think anyone would believe that a colleague had assaulted her.
“I didn’t believe it, until it happened to me,” said Hinves, who asked to be identified by her married name. “I understand this thinking, that it’s not going to happen in our command — until it’s one of your buddies.”
Word got out anyway. Her fellow airmen turned on her, she said, furious that she was ruining her alleged assailant’s career. “I became like a cancer,” she said. “I was a liability.” The hostility was so intense that she was told by a ranking officer that he couldn’t guarantee her safety on the base.
Hinves ultimately was honorably discharged in 2011 with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress from her assault. But after she spoke publicly about the incident in the documentary Invisible War, she said her own military turned on her. The Air Force called her in for a re-evaluation, determining that she had a borderline personality disorder, court documents show — a common diagnosis for military sexual assault victims — and downgraded her disability rating to 30 percent, which would affect the amount of benefits she could receive.
With the help of a civilian attorney, Susan Sajadi, Hinves was granted a 70 percent disability status for her post-traumatic stress. The evaluation board also said that she “appears never to have been formally diagnosed with a personality disorder,” and removed the notation from her record. But she lost her dream job in the military and a chance at a lifelong career. The man she says assaulted her was never prosecuted.
For the past few years, the Pentagon has launched an extensive, public effort to combat sexual assault. It has set up a special office for victims’ advocates, commissioned reports to study the problem and stepped up training. The efforts have encouraged more victims to speak out. Reports of sexual assaults increased 41 percent from 2012 to 2014, according to Department of Defense data.
Retaliation, however, remains constant. Nearly two-thirds of service members who report sexual assault — 62 percent — say they experienced some form of social or professional retaliation from their fellow service members in 2014, according to a study conducted by military research firm RAND Corp. on behalf of the Defense Department. The number hasn’t changed since at least 2012, the last time the question was asked.
The data only tells part of the story. A Human Rights Watch report released Monday interviewed more than 150 service members who said that they have been sexually assaulted. Many of those interviewed said that they had been harassed, physically attacked or threatened by their peers for reporting. Professionally, some service members said they were stripped of their ranks, assigned to menial tasks and even pushed out of the military — all because they reported an assault.
Those who retaliated against them were almost never punished. Even legal remedies set up to help those who report crimes failed them, the report found.
Laura Seal, a DOD spokeswoman, said that ending retaliation is “critical” to addressing sexual assault in the military. “We are very concerned whenever we hear about retaliation associated with reports of sexual assault, and we are open to any information, analysis, insight and partnerships that will help us craft and improve our way forward,” she said.
Col. Chuck Killion, director of the Air Force judiciary, said Hinves’ case file didn’t indicate that she had faced such serious threats. Citing privacy laws, he declined to get into specifics about her discharge. But officials also said that the Air Force has made major changes to how it handles sexual assault cases since then.
“MAKE HER LIFE A LIVING HELL”
Until recently, retaliating against those who report sexual assault wasn’t necessarily a crime.
Two years ago, the armed services only prohibited administrative retaliation — any kind of personnel action taken against someone who had reported a criminal offense, which is the standard language in the Whistleblower Protection Act.
But according to the DOD data, more than half of the service members who reported sexual assault had experienced social retaliation.
Insults and ostracization can be damaging enough. But in many cases, the HRW report found, the social retaliation took on an even more troubling dimension.
One Army soldier cited in the report said that after he reported that he’d been sexually assaulted in 2012, a sergeant in his platoon warned that “Friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens.” At a bar, he said that someone tried to knife him, screaming “DIE F—–, DIE.”
A Marine who reported her rape said she found her picture posted on a website frequented by her colleagues. It was smeared with profane insults and a call for her to be silenced “before she lied about another rape.” One post read: “Find her, tag her, haze her, make her life a living hell.”
In 2014, Congress required the services to create a regulation prohibiting ostracization and maltreatment of someone who reports a crime. Violations can be punished with jail time, forfeiture of pay and dishonorable discharges. Since these rules only took effect recently, it’s difficult to evaluate their effect.
The Pentagon has made other changes. The DOD now requires that service branches hold monthly meetings to track every reported sexual assault case, monitor for retaliation and forward allegations to the proper channels for investigation.
It plans to conduct a comprehensive review of policies on retaliation, conduct new training for junior officers and enlisted supervisors and expand its awareness campaign to ensure service members know how to report reprisals.
The Pentagon has also required the branches to implement a policy to allow sexual assault victims who have been involuntarily discharged to request a review of their case to ensure they aren’t being pushed out in retaliation for reporting their assault. It’s also starting to hold commanders more responsible for the attitudes in their unit by conducting annual surveys on how service members perceive the attitude of harassment and other issues, and holding them accountable for the results.
It also said it would gather more detailed data on the kinds of retaliation that service members experience.
“IT WASN’T WORTH IT” TO REPORT
Despite regulations prohibiting professional retaliation, a majority of service members who experienced reprisals reported some kind of professional backlash as well.
The military gives its commanders many tools to maintain discipline in the ranks, from verbal warnings to more formal letters of reprimand, along with a host of administrative punishments, such as assigning a service member to menial tasks.
But the HRW report and interviews with former service members show that those tools are rarely used to punish people who retaliate against sexual assault victims.
Instead, they’re often used to great effect against the victims themselves.
After reporting her rape, a petty officer said she was assigned to garbage duty on the base, according to HRW. She picked up trash with three other women who had also reported assaults.
A senior master sergeant reported that when she was a young airman, she had been groped by a judge advocate general. In her next performance evaluation, she said she was marked down for “questionable handling of personnel matters.” Later, when she was raped, she didn’t report for fear of hurting her career. “To me, it wasn’t worth it,” she said.
Service members who are sexually assaulted also face the threat of what’s called “collateral misconduct,” whereby they face punishment for infractions surrounding the assault, such as under-age drinking or adultery, if they report the incident.
Administrative punishments carry an even greater weight today. As U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, the military is shrinking, too. Any blemish on a record can be an excuse to send a service member packing.
Sexual assault victims who report professional retaliation have little chance of seeing a remedy, according to the Human Rights Watch analysis.
For example, one recourse is to file a complaint to the Department of Defense’s inspector general or the inspector general for their branch of the armed forces. But the report examined nine years of complaints filed to military inspectors general and found no cases in which a sexual assault survivor who was retaliated against was aided by the law.
Between Jan. 1, 2004 and Dec. 31, 2013, there were more than 17,900 complaints of sexual assault from service member victims, a third of whom said that they had been retaliated against, the HRW report found. During that same period, the Pentagon’s inspector general received only 38 complaints from a victim of sexual assault who said they had been retaliated against professionally. Of those, only five were investigated, and none were substantiated.
A 2012 watchdog report from the Government Accountability Office slammed whistleblower cases investigated by the Defense Department’s inspector general overall, finding that investigation procedures were outdated, the process poorly monitored, and case files were often incomplete. Two years later, the GAO found little improvement.
WHAT COULD CHANGE
Last month, several members of Congress introduced a bill, sponsored in the Senate by Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), to strengthen protections for military whistleblowers, including those who report sexual assault. Among other things, the law would bring the military burden of proof for retaliation in line with those of civilians. Rather than requiring investigators to weigh the evidence for and against the whistleblower, as the military currently does, the law would require officers to prove clearly that any personnel action taken against the service member was unrelated to their whistleblower reporting.
It allows the inspector general to temporarily suspend harmful personnel actions against a whistleblower while it investigates.
The law would also impose sanctions for supervisors who don’t curb harassment by their subordinates and allow the inspectors general to recommend disciplinary action against anyone determined to have retaliated against a whistleblower.
The law would also make it easier for whistleblowers to have their records restored if it was found they were improperly sanctioned.
Some critics say the military’s biggest obstacle to curbing sexual assault may be a culture of hyper masculinity that reinforces and esteems the traditional military stereotype of a strong, heterosexual man over other service men and women. Victims of sexual assault are seen as challenging that culture, leaving them open to harassment and retaliation.
“We have a problem with misogyny in the DOD — as much as they claim they don’t they do,” said Don Christensen, an Air Force colonel and chief prosecutor who retired from the military last year in frustration with how it treats sexual assault victims. He’s now president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group. He said, “There’s a tendency to excuse the misconduct.”
“I JUST LEARNED HOW TO DEAL WITH IT”
Jessica Hinves said she got used to sexual harassment during her time in the Air Force. Her colleagues urged her to flash her breasts in the co-ed locker room, made drunken passes at the bar, and tried to show her pornography.
Hinves said she once dodged a ranking officer’s advances by saying she was a lesbian to avoid offending him.
“I just learned how to deal with it,” she said, adding that she dished out insults and played pranks, too. “You can’t harm their egos, you gotta walk a fine line. … I was OK with the advances — I shouldn’t have been — but I wasn’t going to be ostracized or jeopardize my career.”
Gen. Gina Grosso, director of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response office, said in an interview that sexual harassment can be a problem. “I don’t personally believe we have a culture of sexual harassment, but we clearly have pockets that have not addressed this,” she said.
More generally, Grosso added that the service takes retaliation seriously, but that it also needed to better understand what airmen go through when they are assaulted.
Sometimes victims have a “perception of negative behavior,” she said. “And I do want to stress that it’s perception, and not that they’re not telling the truth.” For some survivors, she said, “Your body goes into a defensive mode and it literally sees everything as a threat. Some things the individual absolutely sees as negative from the institution’s perspective is meant to be helpful.”
She said that recent policy changes show the Air Force’s response to sexual harassment and assault has changed significantly in recent years, both by adapting the DOD and Congress’ new provisions and implementing new awareness and training campaigns. She said combating retaliation was the next major challenge. “We had big rocks to fix, and we’ve fixed those,” she said. “Now we have the space to take on retaliation.”