The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act contained a small clause that sought to understand the scope of a troubling practice: the punishment of service members who report a sexual assault by discharging them in such a way that it robs them of any benefits. It took more than a year for the GAO to complete this review, and the findings do not cast a favorable light upon an already troubled department.
The GAO's report found that the number of service members the military has separated wrongfully for a "personality disorder," "adjustment disorder," or similar classification cannot be determined due to extremely poor record-keeping and conflicting information. The report also found that the services failed to follow appropriate procedures and lacked any system of oversight to ensure that military members were separated properly.
According to the GAO's report:
"The Department of Defense (DOD) and three of the four military services—Army, Navy, and Marine Corps—cannot identify the number of enlisted service members separated for non-disability mental conditions—mental conditions that are not considered service-related disabilities. For most non-disability mental condition separations, these services use the broad separation code, 'condition, not a disability'."
The Air Force was the lone exception.
A non-disability mental condition is a mental health condition that a service member has prior to enlisting or being commissioned as an officer. This separation classification absolves the military of responsibility for that condition, so the service does not pay for treatment or for disability compensation.
A service member simply gets a ticket back to their home town and they are left to fend for themselves, often with a blemished military record that hinders future employment.
This was the case with Capt. Susan Carlson. She joined the Army as a mental health counselor at a time when the Army was desperate for her skill set. Despite years of glowing reviews from her superiors, Carlson was discharged from the Army with a diagnosis of a "personality disorder," instead of the far more likely diagnosis of PTSD, following difficulties while deployed to Afghanistan. Carlson would later find out that the diagnosis had been made at the request of her commanding officer in order to get rid of her.This same practice has been employed to
retaliate against service members who report sexual assault, despite the fact that retaliation of any kind is illegal under military law.
It is so common that in 2008, the Army had to change its policy regarding personality disorder separations. The change required the service member's file to be reviewed to determine if the discharge could possibly be retaliation. The policy change had little effect, based on the report's findings.
The GAO looked at this issue before and came to similar conclusions. In 2008 and 2012, the GAO found the same problems: poor record-keeping, inappropriate discharges, and no oversight.
The report also found that the services "lack separation policies that address all of DOD's eight requirements for separating service members with non-disability mental conditions; both DOD and the services also lack oversight over such separations."
It went on to say that the DOD required the services to report their compliance with separation procedures for personality disorders, one of the many non-disability mental conditions, and that -- to date -- the services have failed to do so. Records have been found to be incomplete or contradictory, or no records were kept at all.
According to the DOD, it is the responsibility of each service to conduct oversight of their own separation policies. This self-policing was found to be non-existent by the GAO:
"GAO found that the military services do not have processes to oversee non-disability mental condition separations. Without up-to-date and consistent policies and oversight processes, DOD and the military services cannot ensure that service members separated for non-disability mental conditions have been afforded the protections intended by DOD's separation requirements and that service members have been appropriately separated for such conditions."
All of this means that, essentially, this practice can continue unchecked because no one with any authority is going to be the wiser.
To make matters worse, the DOD agrees with the findings in the report. In its response to the GAO, the department concurred with all of the conclusions, but offered no indication as to when -- or if -- it will comply with current regulations or implement any of the recommendations in the report.
Author's note: The defense department was contacted, but a spokesperson declined to comment.