Two veterans groups have filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security, alleging that the government is illegally denying records requests involving sexual assault and harassment cases.
The two veterans advocate groups — Protect Our Defenders and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center — filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court Wednesday.
The lawsuit comes after the military’s responses to three sets of Freedom of Information Act requests were deemed insufficient or non-existent by the advocacy groups.
The groups hope legal action will compel the release of records related to gender disparities within the military justice system, as well as the military record correction boards’ alleged mishandling of cases involving sexual assault and harassment.
“The military has resisted efforts to end the epidemic of sexual assault and retaliation within its ranks, despite years of congressional attention and reform,” said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, who is now president of Protect Our Defenders. “Service members, members of Congress and the public deserve to know if the military unlawfully discriminates against female service members and survivors of sexual assault.”
The lawsuit also alleges that service members who are victims of sexual trauma experience high rates of career-ending retaliation.
“Too many of our clients have been forced out of the military for experiencing military sexual trauma but have been denied an upgrade of their discharge status and the critical federal and state benefits that their service merits,” said Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Armed Services committees, welcomed the legal action in a statement, saying “survivors of military sexual assault are owed justice and openness in discharge proceedings.”
“Instead, far too many are re-victimized by dishonorable discharges that bar them from receiving the services and recognition they need and deserve,” Blumenthal said.
Roughly 14,900 service members were sexually assaulted last year, according to the 2016 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.
Of those assaults, approximately 8,600 victims were women and 6,300 were men. More than half of both men and women (58 percent of women and 60 percent of men) who were assaulted said they faced retaliation after reporting the incident.
Although the Defense Department saw a decrease in sexual assault allegations and increased reporting during 2016, the assaults that do occur continue to negatively impact readiness, according to Navy Rear Adm. Ann Burkhardt, director of the department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
“[The] bond is broken when there’s sexual violence or harassment; even worse when this behavior is condoned or ignored,” Burkhardt said during a May Pentagon briefing. “Sexual assault violates the core values of our military and must never be tolerated. We have more work to do to advance dignity and respect for each and every person. It is essential to military readiness.”