Roy Carter reported a sexual assault by a male solider from another platoon to Department of Defense officials in 2012. Within six months of his complaint, he had been physically attacked twice and verbally belittled by officers. Moreover, a solider in his platoon threatened to kill him if the two ever deployed together, saying, “friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens.”
Mr. Carter’s story of reprisal is just one of many featured in a Human Rights Watch report released Monday that found widespread retaliation among the ranks, including obscene name-calling, social isolation and discharges for misconduct after making assault claims.
Sara Darehshori, senior U.S. counsel at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report, said troops will continue to hesitate to report an assault as long as they face such a high chance of retaliation.
“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,” Ms. Darehshori said in a statement. “Ending retaliation is critical to addressing the problem of sexual assault in the military.”
A Defense Department report released earlier this month found nearly two-thirds of people who make sexual assault claims perceived some type of retaliation. The Human Rights Watch report reiterated this statistic, saying: “In other words, military service members who reported sexual assault were 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation for doing so than to see their offender, if also a service member, convicted for a sex offense.”
In response, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called for the creation of a Defense Department-wide strategy to prevent retaliation against service members who report any crimes, not just sexual assault.
“We’re not making enough progress on countering retaliation,” Mr. Carter told reporters May 1. “Too many service members, the data shows, feel that when they report or try to stop these crimes, they’re being ostracized or retaliated against in some way.”
The Human Rights Watch report cited claims of personal and professional retaliation that service members said was sometimes “worse than the attack itself.”
Victims said they faced punishment more often for minor infractions such as wearing the wrong socks or nail polish. Service members who reported a sexual assault also said they were called obscene names, like “lying whore,” “slut” and unprintably worse sexual references.
One sailor interviewed for the report said that after being assaulted by a chef halfway through her deployment, she faced so much harassment from the food staff that she couldn’t eat in the mess hall anymore and had to buy her own food in port for about seven months of the deployment, “living off cans of tuna.”
Complainants also perceived retaliation that harmed their chance to advance in their career, including being reassigned to menial tasks like picking up garbage, poor evaluations and the denial of training opportunities that ultimately lead to lost promotions.
The report found only a handful of incidents where those who perpetrated the retaliation faced even minor disciplinary action as a result.
In one, after a supervisor found notes in a common area calling five recruits “lying whores” for reporting assaults, those who wrote the notes merely had their graduation from the program in question delayed for two weeks.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gilliband, New York Democrat, has led the charge in Congress for years to strip military commanders of their authority to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases and put it instead in the hands of a military lawyer. Supporters of her plan say it will make the military justice system more impartial and be fairer to both victims and their alleged attackers.
The military and some members of Congress, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, have pushed back against the changes raised by Ms. Gillibrand, saying that removing the commander from the system would hurt confidence in the system and disrupt good order and discipline.
Ms. Gillibrand urged all members of Congress to read the report and promised to reintroduce her plan to strip commanders of their convening authority as an amendment to the defense policy bill that will be debated on the Senate floor next month.
“These sickening stories of retaliation against survivors should make every American angry,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a statement. “We keep hearing how previous reforms were going to protect victims and make retaliation a crime. Yet there has been zero progress on this front, and this mission is failing.”
The report did not mention this major overhaul of the military justice system, but did make several other recommendations to Congress, including prohibiting the prosecution of minor violations that only came to light because the victim reported the assault, like underage drinking or adultery.
Victims are already allowed by law to request an expedited transfer to another duty station to escape their alleged attacker, but the report found that many service members see the transfer as a form of punishment in itself, and their reputation as a “troublemaker” for reporting the assault often follows to their next duty stations.
The results of the report came from 255 in-person and telephone interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch between October 2013 and April 2015, including more than 150 with survivors of sexual assault.