In 2009, Emily Vorland went to Iraq with the Army for a year, hoping it would lead to a career in special operations. That dream was derailed not by the enemy, but by a superior officer, who started sexually harassing her.
“I said no and then reported it. And my direct chain of command relieved him of his position. However, it was three months later when the retaliation started,” she says.
She says that’s when the investigation started to focus on her. It came down to a threat of perjury charges, unless she accepted a general discharge. She took that deal, but it was hard to find civilian work because of what it said on her discharge papers.
” ‘General under honorable,’ and then what they have under there — conduct unbecoming. It was hard to apply for a job.”
The military released data this month showing over 6,000 reported sexual assaults during 2015. The real number is likely three or four times higher. Just like in the civilian world, most rape doesn’t get reported, and the Pentagon acknowledges this happens in the military because victims fear they — not the perpetrators — will face reprisals from commanders.
Human Rights Watch says in a report today that the Pentagon doesn’t do enough to repair the damage from those reprisals.
“It’s a common perception in the military that you have to choose between reporting your rape and staying in the military,” said Sara Darehshori, who interviewed hundreds of military sexual assault survivors for the organization.
“When I walked back onto base, everyone knew that now I wasn’t just the soldier doing great things and on a great path,” she says. “Now I was the rape victim.”
After that, she was raped twice more, she says, and then pushed out of the military. She got an honorable discharge — but her commanders used a category that critics charge has been used to get rape victims, especially women, out of the service quickly.
“Right next to it saying that I have an honorable discharge, it says that I have a personality disorder,” she says — despite it never having been diagnosed. “That was handed down just by the decision of my chain of command. It was not anything where I saw a licensed psychologist or clinician.”
Men make up the vast majority of the military — 85 percent — and a slight majority of military sexual assault victims, though only 10 percent report the crime, compared with 38 percent of women, according to the Pentagon’s most recent report on sexual assault in the military.
Heath Phillips joined the Navy at 17 and says he was raped repeatedly by a group of sailors.
“When you wake up and see six guys doing stuff to each other and to you? I still have nightmares about it,” he says. “I am 45 years old, and I still have that vision in my head.”
To escape, Phillips went AWOL, repeatedly. The Navy told him he could take an “other-than-honorable” discharge to avoid court martial.
“I was 18 years old, already an alcoholic because I drank to be numb,” he says. “I won’t lie, I would’ve signed a deal with the devil at that moment in time.”
Anything other than an honorable discharge can carry heavy consequences. It usually means no VA care, no benefits. Phillips says he wound up sometimes homeless, in jail — a drunk for most of 20 years.
“Nothing has been done for the thousands of people who were kicked out after they reported their sexual assault and still have to live with these terrible discharge papers that continue to impact their lives,” says Darehshori, with Human Rights Watch.
She says many of them believe incorrectly that a less-than-honorable discharge can be easily upgraded by a Discharge Review Board or the Board of Corrections of Military Records.
“In fact, those bodies are dead ends,” says Darehshori. She says they upgrade only a tiny fraction of the cases that come up for review.
“Victims we spoke to are reluctant to go to the boards [and] bare their souls and relive trauma, when they have essentially no chance of being heard,” she says.
In 2014, the Pentagon directed the boards to give more weight to issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects many rape survivors. This year, the Pentagon clarified that this applies to vets who may have been rejected previously, or who are past the normal deadlines to apply.
A Pentagon spokesman says the rate of upgrade for those PTSD cases is now near 40 percent, but he says the boards do not track how many sexual assault cases get upgraded. The Pentagon’s inspector general released a report this month that found “personality disorder” and other mental health classifications still are being misused to put sexual assault survivors out of the military.
Phillips says that he knows he can’t get back any of the 20 years he spent off-course after being raped and kicked out of the Navy, but that getting an upgrade — he was denied in 2013 and is appealing — would mean everything.
“The military will finally admit they were wrong,” he says.