“Other Than Honorable” Health Care

United States Marine Corps veteran Carri Leigh Goodwin reported that she was raped twice while on active duty with the Marine Corps in 2007. No one was prosecuted. Shortly thereafter, Goodwin received an “other than honorable discharge.” In 2009, Goodwin died of acute alcohol poisoning.

Last August, the New York Times published a letter written by Goodwin’s father, also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, where he described his daughter’s military sexual trauma and the impediments to veterans who need health benefits but received the same military discharge as his daughter.

According to a report published by the Harvard Law School Veterans’ Legal Clinic, more than 125,000 veterans, including 33,000 who served in combat, were discharged as “other than honorable” after September 11, 2011 up to 2013. This constitutes about seven percent of veterans, the highest rate of such discharges since World War II. Other than being denied access to the GI Bill or Yellow Ribbon educational benefits and employment opportunities, an “other than honorable” discharge means being denied access to vital health care services.

As defined under 38 U.S. Code 1720D, military sexual trauma, [MST], is “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a Veterans Administration (VA) mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training.” According to the VA’s national screening program, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men admit that they have experienced MST. These figures only constitute veterans that have actually sought health care from the VA.

Other than post-traumatic stress disorder, other diagnoses can result from MST. These include depression, mood disorders, and substance use disorders. The Department of Veterans Affairs has also published a list of signs that can determine whether someone has suffered from MST, including worsening work performance.

The VA said that it is committed to ensuring that veterans get the health care they need. Among various services, every VA heath care facility has an MST coordinator and all treatment for physical and mental health conditions that resulted from MST are free of charge. Still, in order to have access to such health care, a veteran must have an “honorable” discharge. While reports of sexual assault in the military have risen by approximately 88 percent between 2007 and 2013, some victims allege that they have faced retaliation for speaking out, namely and most notoriously, by receiving “bad papers”- a “dishonorable” or “other than honorable” discharge.

“Bad papers” are correlated to high rates of suicide. According to former Air Force Chief Prosecutor Colonel Don Christensen, some traumatized service members may take a bad discharge just to escape their perpetrator or because they think it would be easy to upgrade the discharge to an “honorable” one later. Between 2009 and 2012, the Board for Correction of Naval Records, who would have been the final decision-maker in Goodwin’s case, granted just one percent of “other than honorable discharge” upgrade requests. In 2014, Defense Secretary Hagel issued a guideline for review boards to favorably consider discharge upgrade requests for veterans suffering from PTSD. There was no specific mention regarding veterans that suffered personality disorders or MST.

In May 2016, Human Rights Watch recommended that Congress require the Department of Defense to expedite the review of sexual assault cases of veterans who believe they received a wrong type of discharge, and to have greater transparency to the public regarding decisions on such cases.

As for Mr. Goodwin, he wants his daughter’s honor restored. He wants the military to acknowledge that his daughter was the only one that acted honorably by actually reporting her assault.