More Vets Who Are Coping With PTSD From Sexual Assaults Get Honorable Discharges

Jun 1, 2018
Originally published on June 2, 2018 12:05 pm

Sexual assault is still a major issue for the military. Reports rose by 10 percent last year, though there is some discussion about whether that is an increase in the number of assaults or an increased willingness of troops to come forward and report them. That would be an improvement because victims of rape in the military often face retaliation, sometimes even a less than honorable discharge from the military.

Among those veterans there is another number that is going up: the people getting their records corrected to show they served honorably.

Sexual assault and harassment affects female troops at a higher rate. But because the military is still mostly male, it's men who make up a much larger number of victims among the thousands of sexual assaults each year. Women report the crime more than twice as much as men.

This makes Heath Phillips, who speaks publicly about his experience, rare.

Phillips was sexually assaulted repeatedly by a group of sailors right after he joined the Navy.

"I still have nightmares about it," he told NPR in 2016. "I am 45 years old, and I still have that vision in my head."

Phillips says the trauma drove him to alcoholism and to go AWOL. He was kicked out of the Navy in 1989, with an "other than honorable discharge" that he accepted in lieu of court-martial.

"I was 18. I had no clue [about] the stigma ... having that discharge would carry. I was denied jobs, I was denied joining any type of veterans organization, I was deemed a bad person," he says, "Having that discharge completely barred me from [Veterans Affairs] help."

Phillips says he spent 20 years drinking heavily and was sometimes suicidal. He got sober in 2009. In 2015, the VA finally diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder connected to sexual assault. But still the military review boards refused three separate appeals to change his discharge.

Then last Wednesday, his lawyer called to say the fourth appeal was a success.

"I probably said, 'Oh my God' at least 150 times," he says.

"The military are finally catching up with the notion that all of his behavior was driven by post-traumatic stress disorder and the trauma he was experiencing," said his lawyer, Coco Culhane with the Veteran Advocacy Project.

Culhane says she has a backlog of hundreds of veterans hoping for an upgrade, but she's hopeful now. In 2014, a Pentagon memo told discharge review boards to give "liberal consideration" to vets with PTSD. Last year, Congress made that law and required the boards to start reporting how often they give upgrades.

And the numbers have shot up. The boards this year have granted about half of all appeals by veterans who survived sexual assault. The only catch is that many veterans don't know things have changed.

"The uptick in discharge upgrades for sexual assault victims is a positive change, but too few victims know the odds are now in their favor. The few who do may not have the assistance they need to navigate the bureaucracy and apply for relief," according to Sara Darehshori, who has investigated the issue for Human Rights Watch.

"We will hear from people from the Vietnam War, who still reach out because they want to talk to somebody but they have no real hope they're going to get relief," says Don Christensen, with Protect Our Defenders, a group that supports survivors of military sexual assault.

Heath Phillips has seen his new upgraded honorable discharge in an email. The original, after 29 years, will arrive in the mail soon.

"The original I'm going to post on my wall just so I can reflect on it. It lets me know how strong I was. I could have [given] up," he says.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sexual assault is still a major issue for the U.S. military. Reports rose 10 percent last year though there is some discussion about whether that's an increase in the number of assaults or increased willingness of troops to report them. Victims of rape in the military often don't speak up. Those who do risk retaliation - sometimes even a less than honorable discharge. Among those veterans, there's another number going up though - the number of people getting their records corrected to show that they served honorably. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Sexual assault and harassment affect female troops at a higher rate. But since the military is still mostly male, it's men who make up a much larger number among the thousands of sexual assault victims each year. But women report the crime more than twice as often as men, which is what makes Heath Phillips so rare because he speaks about it publicly.

HEATH PHILLIPS: Nobody should have to go through this.

LAWRENCE: Phillips was sexually assaulted repeatedly right after he joined the Navy. He says the trauma drove him to alcoholism and to go AWOL. He was kicked out of the Navy in 1989 with an other than honorable discharge.

PHILLIPS: I was 18. I had no clue the stigma, the pitfalls and downfalls that having that discharge would carry. I was denied jobs. I was denied any type of - joining any veteran organizations. I was deemed as, like, a bad person. And then when you try going to VA, having that discharge completely barred me from VA help.

LAWRENCE: Philip said he spent 20 years as a drunk - sometimes suicidal. He got sober in 2009. In 2015, the VA finally diagnosed him with PTSD connected to sexual assault. But still, the military review boards refused on three separate appeals to change his discharge. Then he got a phone call last Wednesday.

PHILLIPS: I probably said, oh, my God at least 150 times.

LAWRENCE: It was his lawyer Coco Culhane, calling to say the fourth appeal had won.

COCO CULHANE: The military are finally sort of catching up with the notion that all of his behavior was driven directly by post-traumatic stress disorder and the trauma he's experiencing.

LAWRENCE: Culhane is with the Veteran Advocacy Project. She says the Pentagon bowed to pressure in 2014, telling discharge review boards to give liberal consideration to vets with PTSD. Last year, Congress made that law and required the boards to start reporting how often they give upgrades. And the numbers continue to rise. After years when it was considered a long shot, the boards this year have granted about half of all the appeals by veterans who survived sexual assault. But it's a small number applying. Many vets have long ago given up on it, says Don Christensen, a former Air Force prosecutor who now leads the group Protect Our Defenders.

DON CHRISTENSEN: We'll hear from people from the Vietnam War still who, you know, just kind of reach out because they want to talk to somebody but have no real hope that they're ever going to get relief.

LAWRENCE: Heath Phillips is hoping his example will encourage others. His upgraded honorable discharge, 29 years after he left the Navy, is on its way in the mail.

PHILLIPS: The original, I'm going to post it on the wall in my office, just so I can reflect on it. Just - it lets me know how strong I was.

LAWRENCE: He's thankful, he says, that he didn't give up. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.