Trigger Warning: This article contains quotations of harmful language made against survivors of sexual assault.
CNN reports a horrific pattern in the US military to diagnose women who come forward with sexual assault allegations as suffering from a “personality disorder.” This diagnosis not only completely contradicts the definition of a personality disorder as it exists in the DSM-IV, but denies these women any chance to seek support, press charges on their assailant, or continue their service, and can present them with a slew of financial burdens upon their discharge. This pattern represents a disgusting attempt to sweep sexual abuse in the military under the rug at the direct expense of these women’s health and careers, and to the detriment of anyone who ever has or ever will face sexual assault while in service.
The women pictured above all served in different branches of the military, but all faced a similar response when they made reports of sexual assault. Stephanie Schroeder (far left) was raped in a bathroom by a fellow marine in 2002, but when she tried to report the rape a non-commissioned officer told her, “Don’t come bitching to me because you had sex and changed your mind.” Anna Moore (second from left), a Patriot missile battery operator, was raped while alone in her barracks also in 2002. Her first sergeant told her, “Forget about it. It never happened,” and tore up her forms to file a report. Jenny McClendon (second from right) was raped by a superior while serving as a sonar operator on a Navy destroyer. All three were diagnosed with a personality disorder after reporting their assaults and discharged from service.
These women received this diagnosis in spite of the fact that the DSM-IV (the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines a personality disorder as a long-standing, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior and coping, beginning in adolescence or early adulthood. This diagnosis should not be made in the midst of a traumatic experience, such as the aftermath of a sexual assault, according to Dr. Liza H. Gold, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
The denial on the part of the higher-ups exacerbates the harm caused by sexual assault to these survivors. Panayiota Bertzikis (pictured at far right) was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder and subsequently forced out of the Coast Guard in 2006 after reporting to her superiors that a shipmate had raped her.
When she reported the attack, Bertzikis says the chief of her Coast Guard station ordered her and her attacker to clean out an attic on base together and told to work out their differences.
“I am the victim of this crime, and then you report it, and then I felt like I was the one on trial — I was the one who did something wrong,” Bertzikis says. “He got a free pass. I was the one fighting to stay in.”
Anu Baghwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network, likens the kind of betrayal these survivors face to the trauma survivors of incest experience.
“Very commonly victims will hear that they’re lying whores. It’s very common,” Bhagwati says. “That kind of betrayal deepens the trauma so, so much, and it’s hard to recover from that. I mean, it’s akin to incest where you grow up with a family, with someone you trust, admire and in many cases, salute, is your perpetrator. It’s a huge betrayal that often entails guilt, embarrassment, shame. You’re made to feel that you did something wrong and you could have prevented it from happening.”
In addition to further emotional trauma, these survivors can also face increased financial burdens with these diagnoses. According to CNN, a personality disorder diagnosis will hamper discharged service members ability to receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. A personality disorder is viewed as a pre-existing condition that does constitute a service related disability, and therefore does not lead to benefits to help with the trauma. Celeste Santana was also diagnosed with an adjustment disorder after she reported being sexually assaulted in the middle of the night while serving in Afghanistan. She was a navy lieutenant forced out of the military after seventeen years of service, just three years short of being eligible for retirement. Santana subsequently lost her pension.
There are survivors who are fighting back. Bertzikis started stopmilitaryrape.org and mydutytospeak.com to give survivors a space to speak out, and in addition founded and runs the Military Rape Crisis Center. Schroeder is seeking a PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis. Moore has been diagnosed with PTSD and is now on full disability. Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta announced that service members who filed a sexual assault report would be allowed to make an immediate request for transfer to a different unit, and also asked for an assessment of training that higher ups receive on sexual assault prevention and response.
Schroeder is skeptical, however.
“It’s all just talk. It’s for show”
In 2011 there were 3,191 reports of military sexual assault. The Pentagon estimates that unreported sexual assaults would push the actual number closer to 19,000. If the military continues to create an environment conducive to the abuse of its own service members then undoubtedly these numbers will rise, even if the trials these survivors have faced will cause the reported numbers to dwindle.