Sexual assault is a growing problem in the US military. A recent report points to 3,192 reported cases in 2011 alone. And only a small fraction of sexual assaults are ever reported. The Pentagon estimates the actual figure may be closer to 19,000. Previous studies have suggested that 1 out of every 3 women and 1 in 15 men in the military experience sexual assault at the hands of other service members.
There are myriad reasons why someone wouldn’t want to report sexual assault in the armed forces, and a recent CNN report points to one disturbingly common possibility. Rape victims throughout the armed forces are claiming to have had their allegations ignored by superiors, suddenly finding themselves diagnosed with “personality disorders” which force them to leave the military.
Anu Bhagwati, the executive director for the Service Women’s Action Network, tells CNN she’s seen a disturbing pattern of women given psychiatric diagnoses to make their rape reports disappear:
“It’s convenient to sweep this under the rug. It’s also extremely convenient to slap a false diagnosis on a young woman … and then just get rid of them so you don’t have to deal with that problem in your unit. And, unfortunately, a lot of sexual assault survivors are considered problems,” Bhagwati says.
These sudden diagnoses don’t fit with the medial understanding of a personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), a personality disorder is a long-standing, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior and coping which begins in adolescence or early adulthood. Considering that these women were able to pass military screening and basic training, the likelihood they’re actually suffering from pre-existing personality disorders is incredibly low.
Not only that, but psychiatrists consider such diagnoses given during or just after periods of trauma (such as sexual assault) to be inaccurate. If the changes in personality persist following a stressful or traumatic event, the DSM points to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the best diagnosis.
The numbers CNN is reporting are troubling. Women are a minority in every branch of the military, but make up a disproportionate percentage of all personality disorder diagnoses:
Military records show the personality disorder diagnosis is being used disproportionately on women, according to military records obtained by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic under a Freedom of Information Act request.
–In the Army, 16% of all soldiers are women, but females constitute 24% of all personality disorder discharges.
–Air Force: women make up 21% of the ranks and 35% of personality disorder discharges.
–Navy: 17% of sailors are women and 26% of personality disorder discharges
–Marines: 7% of the Corps and 14% of personality disorder discharges
The records don’t reflect how many of those women had reported sexual assault.
The consequences of reporting military sexual assaults don’t stop with simply being discharged from the military. Service members with a personality disorder aren’t eligible for education benefits or veterans health benefits. They may not be able to receive help for their PTSD. They can lose pension benefits even when close to retirement. Some women report being forced to repay their enlistment bonus after being discharged — with hefty interest fees.
On the heels of these reports come some good news for victims of both sexes in the military — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced the military will take new steps to prevent sexual assault. These measures include a “Special Victims Unit” within each of the services to track the outcome of sexual assault cases, which will hopefully be able to safeguard against cases like those reported by CNN.
Panetta also emphasized that the most important step the military can take is simply prosecuting offenders. What do Care2 readers think of the announcement? Do Panetta’s proposed policies go far enough?
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