Violating Service Members’ Human Rights: Damage That Spreads
Over ten years in to the Global War on Terror US troops have both suffered and committed countless human rights violations. The recent murder of 17 Afghan civilians (mostly women and children), allegedly committed by a single rogue Army Staff Sergeant, has lead to increased scrutiny of the mental state of US troops. Military members are exposed to dehumanizing training, sexual assault, long and frequent deployments, abusive leadership, and inadequate health and mental health care. As a veteran and organizer of Operation Recovery: a campaign for service members’ right to heal, I have joined with other post-9/11 veterans and allies to expose and change the harmful practice of deploying traumatized service members and denying their right to heal from Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
Using personal experience and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as grounding points this examination will explore ways service members human rights are violated and make connections between such abuses and negative behaviors exhibited by some veterans while deployed and stateside. I’ll also share some of the solutions being pursued by Operation Recovery as well as name some of the questions being asked of the military.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an international standard for human rights. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 the Declaration has undergone the addition of many treaties since that time as well as additional criteria for what should rest under the umbrella of the declaration. The following examination will consider human rights abuses of service members and abuses committed by service members including instances of dehumanization, torture, murder, suicide, stigmatizing physiological injuries and sexual assault, as well as other violations of service members’ right to heal and service members’ human rights. There are clear connections between the dehumanizing of service members and the harmful behaviors they often inflict on themselves, civilians of occupied nations, and the communities they return to after coming home from deployments or leaving the military.
Below are the articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which best illustrate the human rights abuses service members face. Service members are denied such rights and Operation Recovery is helping soldiers and veterans address the violations. There are connections between the violation of service members’ rights and the negative affects on occupied people, US communities, and families of service members; we will explore the connections between violations of service members rights and violent or dangerous behaviors some service members exhibit on deployments or within their families and communities.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Violations of this article are evident in the difficulty service members have in obtaining conscientious objector status. As humans endowed with reason and conscious service members should be allowed to resign for moral reasons at any time in their service. The misnomer of an “all volunteer force” leads uninformed people to ask why service members are in the military if they don’t agree with the war; however in reality service members initially make an eight year commitment to the military for active or reserve time as well as “inactive ready reserve” and before joining the military service members almost always have an incomplete view of the situations and lifestyle they will face within the military. Once committed it is extremely difficult to leave service. Discouraged by military leadership through coercive disciplinary action as well as harassment, most will just stick it out for their enlistment to avoid negative attention. In an all-volunteer military, service members would be able to terminate their contracts at any time. A military that respected service members’ human right to act in accord with their consciences would expand the scope of conscientious objector status to include any refusal to engage in combat or continue to serve on moral grounds.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Security of person may be a human right that is harder to understand until you’ve faced a situation where such security of person is under attack. On deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan service members can spend over a year deployed to areas of extreme danger. Maintaining a state of constant guard has an affect on service members’ social behavior and long-term mental health. “Hyper vigilance” is a common symptom of PTSD and can be characterized by paranoia, inability to judge between situations of danger and safety, and the potential to overreact or “blow up” in the wrong situations such as interactions with coworkers or loved ones. Loss of security also leads to isolation, when the outside world becomes cause to be on constant guard, many service members find that they no longer want to go out in public, drive in traffic, or interact socially with people outside of their closest circle of friends.
While it is true that wartime deployments and danger seem to necessarily go hand in hand, the clear human rights violation is the frequency and duration of deployments. Most of the Army sends soldiers on deployments of up to a year or longer while marine corps and Army rangers deploy for shorter periods often deploying one or more times every year. Some troops have deployed 8-10 times or more. When service members have repeated and prolonged exposure to stressful and dangerous deployments it becomes increasingly difficult to adjust to civilian life and when there is always another deployment on the horizon service members remain in a heightened state of stress.
Operation Recovery is addressing this human rights violation by demanding that service members with traumatic injuries be allowed to pursue medical and mental health treatments that are in the best interest of each patients’ health and well being. Troop numbers and combat readiness should not be leading factors in the health care US service members receive. It is morally wrong and a violation of the human right of security to deploy traumatized service members or to force service members to remain in a traumatic situation.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
While I would never make light of the plight of those who have suffered through slavery I know from experience that military service can feel like being held against your will and forced into labor. After serving 4 years and deploying twice I couldn’t wait to get out of the Army and go to college. Suddenly word came down from the Commanding General; no one was getting out, people were being forced to stay in and deploy again. I was “stop-lossed” for fourteen months, deployed for another year, went through a divorce, survived a sexual assault, and lost my mind for a little while. By the end of my third deployment I was totally numb, I didn’t care about anything, and I was engaging in pretty destructive behavior. Throughout my lowest times on deployment one thing that stands out is the utter lack of control over my own body. I couldn’t even determine where in the world I would be. This type of confinement constitutes servitude.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Hazing and degrading treatment is well known and common amongst the armed services. There is a hierarchy in the inherent paternity of the military and each level treats those below as sub-human. The pattern of abuse continues as service members rise though the ranks or deploy and come to abuse prisoners and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Service women themselves are often subjects of abuse in the military. Sexual assault and harassment have become the leading cause of post-traumatic stress in women. To be sure sexual assault is not just a women’s issue 45% of service members who screened positive for MST in 2010 were men (Stalsburg, 2011).
On top of the general disregard the armed forces have shown for the dignity of humans there are well-documented instances of torture and human rights abuses throughout the US execution of the Global War on Terror. From Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib to secret renditions and torture planes, the US has held none of the moral high ground that some might suggest this country has. The number and degree of moral blemishes on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left service members feeling tainted by the injustice of the occupations, the killing of civilians, or by the pain of loss and the pointlessness of it all. The use of torture has left a moral injury on those who participated and supported such human rights abuses.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
The military violates this article in several clear ways. The inspections of homes and rooms, interference in to personal and relationship matters, even military regulations on private sexual matters are all examples of arbitrary interference with privacy, family, and home. The widespread victim blaming of survivors of military sexual assault is a clear example of an attack upon honor and reputation. Recent cases of women coming forward and organizations like Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) doing important work to raise awareness about sexual assault in the military have shown that sexual assault is often accompanied by abuse from the very command that is supposed to ensure the well being of the service member. The film The Invisible War highlights the struggle of women who have survived sexual assault and rape in the military and survived the mishandling of their cases as well.
Operation recovery is addressing this violation by joining others in breaking the silence around sexual assault. We are lifting up the stories of survivors and putting the blame squarely where it belongs; on the perpetrators of the crimes and the ineffectual leadership in the military which has failed over the years to address sexual assault within the ranks.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
As I have said, military service can feel like slavery when you have a mind to leave but are forced to stick it out no matter what the circumstances. This right of service members to move freely from state to state or country to country is completely violated by the military. Not only are service members forced to leave their homes in the US but they are forced to stay away from home for a year or longer at a time. When this violation becomes especially hard to deal with is when service members are struggling through a problem back home. Relationship problems, important moments in children’s lives, and medical emergencies all can cause extreme tension and stress when service members are denied freedom of movement to and from their home. The Red Cross coordinates emergency leave for medical emergencies involving life and death situations within the immediate family of service members. Often service members are denied the right to return home for a seriously ill family member, a spouses miscarriage, or other circumstance the military may not find as grounds for emergency leave. Not having the option of being available when to family when needed adds to service members’ feelings of guilt and/or helplessness.
Loss of control is one of the major causes of mental health and emotional troubles of service members. News has shared that SSG Robert Bales, the man accused of killing Afghan civilians, was on his fourth deployment, had sustained injuries on previous deployments, and did not want to go on his most recent deadly deployment to Afghanistan. Could being forced to deploy against your will make a service member go off the deep end? What about having a traumatic brain injury? What about living through explosions and seeing friends blown up? These are all factors SSG Bales had stacked against him before he allegedly committed the heinous crimes in Afghanistan. Democracy Now shared a report investigating the possibility of a connection between a malaria drug used by the military known to cause psychotic behavior. There are so many negative factors that could have played a role in this tragedy but the fact is 17 Afghans are gone because all those factors were brought together right outside their homes.
Service members suffering from traumatic injuries will not be forced to deploy. Service members in need of frequent medical care will not be deployed to receive care in theater. Operation Recovery supports service members in asserting their right to adequate health and mental health care. Service members have a right to heal and Operation Recovery is organizing active duty troops to stand up for that right.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Not only does the military promote Christianity far above any other religious preferences but as mentioned before soldiers seeking consciences objector status are forced to jump through a myriad of hoops to ensure that they are genuinely and religiously opposed to all war. There is no room in the military for developing ones own moral and conscious guidelines. Traditional Christian services and values are pushed in the training faze of the military and “Army Values” (or the equivalent) are meant to be the guiding moral principles of service members beyond training.
Operation Recovery seeks to address this violation by supporting service members in standing up for their own humanity. This encompasses freedom of choice issues such as each individual decision about values and morals. It should also address what individuals cannot be forced to do just because they signed a military contract such as acting inhumanely or killing another human being. Human rights cannot be taken away because of a military contract and the right to conscious and belief are at the core of our humanity therefore any attempt to control such is inherently dehumanizing. Again claiming humanity as a defense for humanization seems fitting and a way to get at the core of the abuses in the military.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Service members have restrictions on the peaceful organizing that they can participate in.
Strom Thurmond led the charge to outlaw unionization and organizing within the military when he introduced S. 3079 during the 94th Congress. Before the bill was signed, the military made it law in October of 1977 through the establishment of DOD Directive 1354.1, prohibiting all forms of "collective job-related action" within the ranks and banning union solicitation on base. The directive prohibits soldiers from joining, maintaining or soliciting membership in a labor organization and from striking (Hutto Sr, 2008).
This regulation prevents service members from collectively organizing to improve their own conditions thus adding to the perception the service members have no power to change their circumstances.
One potentially powerful tool that service members have access to is the Appeal for Redress.
The Appeal for Redress allows active-duty troops to express themselves legally to the government and civil society. Using the limited rights under the Military Whistle-blower Protection Act and DoD regulations, more than 2,000 U.S military members in 10 countries have sent appeals to their congressional members to end the Iraq War (Hutto Sr, 2008).
The limits placed on military members right to protest and organize leave just a little room for decent however, most service members belief that regulations are even tighter than they actually are. Military leadership leads service members to believe that any action out of line with established norms will be frowned upon. Such leaders use intimidation and hazing to impose informal punishment on service members when they decide to think differently than established norms. Service members have no right to organize their labor and collectively bargain to improve working conditions and living standards. Such restrictions constitute a violation of service members’ human rights.
Operation Recovery organizers are helping service members to stand up for their right to heal and to improve the conditions under which they serve. Through transformative organizing that encourages service members to claim their own humanity and stand up for their rights as well as through drafting an Appeal for Redress that allows service members to legally petition congress to mandate changes in the military, Operation Recovery is using all avenues available to us to make change in the military.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Parts 1 and 4 of Article 23 are the most relevant to the needs of service members. The right to work and to free choice of employment is violated when service members are forced, with the threat of harsh punishment, to remain in service through enlistment contracts and beyond. Inactive ready reserve time is the possibility of an eight-year commitment. When service members are forced to honor an eight-year contract that they are widely misinformed about on the front end it constitutes a violation of the right to free choice of employment.
Article 4 is violated clearly by DoD regulation 1354.1, which prohibits service members from all job related collective bargaining. Service members are tempted into service by the promise of pay and benefits and a chance at education and job training. However once service members sign a contract they are the ones who have a huge obligation to fulfill. The military itself has much more freedom to treat service members in just about any way and service members are obliged to take whatever circumstances handed to them and do what they are told for their enlistment or longer, up to eight years just with the initial contract. Some people within the military argue against a truly all-volunteer force saying everyone would leave the military. I think that when circumstances are so bad for members of the military that they would leave if they weren’t forced to stay, then we need some serious work on our military and we have to be honest about that.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Service members are denied the adequate rest they need in order to heal from traumatic injuries and recover from the stress and strain of deployments. While the military offers up stateside time as a break for service members from deployments, often the military breaks it’s own guidelines and sends whole units or individual service members back oversees. It’s all up to the needs of the military. “Army officials and mental health professionals who treat troops say. The Army does not track the exact number in combat diagnosed with PTSD nor those who are in combat and taking medicine for PTSD” (Watson, 2012). Service members are not being given the adequate time or treatment they need to recover from traumatic injuries. Repeated deployments increase the likelihood of service members developing more mental health problems and make the chance of suicide far greater. Since 2003, there have been over three hundred documented war zone suicides; the VA is unable to track the number of veteran suicides, which is a huge failure in itself (Veterans for Common Sense, 2012).
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
The human right to the standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of service members is being denied on a mass scale. Service members are denied adequate mental health care and treatment options and instead they are prescribed serious medications on a mass scale and sent back into work or combat. “The Army diagnosed 76,176 soldiers with PTSD between 2000 and 2011. Of those, 65,236 soldiers were diagnosed at some stage of their deployment” (Watson, 2012).
Military leaders with no medical training can override the advice of doctors and Physicians Assistants (PAs) and force service members to deploy or perform duties against medical advice. “Military officials say they have to rely on their mental health experts to decide whether someone is mentally fit to go back into war, and they cannot make a blanket policy of not redeploying troops diagnosed with PTSD. The provider makes a recommendation, but the ultimate decision to deploy a soldier rests with the unit commander” (Watson, 2012). This means low-level military officers can make the decision weather a service member with a Traumatic Brain Injury should deploy even if a doctor says he should not.
The long-term affects of frequent deployments are still mostly unknown but thus far the effects of trauma have been shown to be compounding, worsening with each additional exposure to trauma. Incompetent leadership in the military has led to a lack of concern for the future of millions of veterans of the Global War on Terror. Top military leaders and politicians have sold US service members out for a chance at increased power, money, and personal prestige. Over two million US service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Over one million veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) have deployed twice or more (43%). In 2008, 11,000 service members had already served six or more tours (Veterans For Common Sense, 2012). “Army Secretary John McHugh told Congress, "we have in the military writ large over 50,000 folks in uniform who have had at least four deployments." Some have served double-digit deployments, where they witnessed traumatic events” (Watson, 2012). Each additional deployment increases the likelihood that a service member will experience post-traumatic stress. 20% to 50% of all service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress (Seal, et al, 2008).
"There's been a big problem with soldiers who have been previously deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, with concussive head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder” (Jackson, 2012).
SSG Bales was denied his right to heal. On his fourth deployment after suffering a traumatic brain injury, a foot injury, and witnessing several traumatic events Bales wanted to stay home and recover from his injuries. Reports have shown that Bales did not expect to redeploy but he was forced to. “Military officials insist that Bales had been properly screened and declared fit for combat” (Watson, 2012). The military makes no bone about the fact that their physical and mental health teams are there to get troops back in the fight. What they don’t say is that the long term affects of repeated exposure will be more severe for soldiers because of the continued deployment of traumatized troops. “Critics say the Army has a history of bandaging the problem and rushing troops back into combat by loading them up on prescription drugs” (Watson, 2012).
What the UN says about the right to health,
First, the obligation to respect requires states to avoid measures that could prevent the enjoyment of the right. Therefore, states are under the obligation to respect the right to health by, inter alia, refraining from (i) denying or limiting equal access for all persons to preventative, curative, and palliative health services;(ii) prohibiting or impending traditional preventative care, healing practices, and medicines; (iii) marketing unsafe drugs; (iv) applying coercive medical treatments;(v) limiting access to contraceptives and other means of maintaining sexual and reproductive health; and (vi) censoring, withholding, or intentionally misrepresenting health-related information, including sexual education and information, as well as preventing people’s participation in health-related matters (Clapham, 2007 p129).
The military has continued to pursue a wide range of treatment options for PTS and TBI on a very small and limited scale. While some branches of the military and VA are working on innovated treatment methods what remains the same is that the best treatments are not available to all the service members who need them. What most service members experience is long waits, difficulty getting seen, low quality of care, and only pharmaceutical treatment options. By speaking out about the lack of quality care and organizing service members to make a demand for improvements, Operation Recovery is working to end the violation of service members right to health.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
US soldiers are expected to suffer human rights abuses for the sake of protecting the freedom of US citizens. But when their experiences leave them feeling betrayed they are subject to what is known as a moral injury (Maguen & Litz, 2012). The US military to date has been in a state of perpetual growth and spending and the determination to dwarf the military spending of all other nations by spending the largest portion of our budget annually on weapons systems and military operations has earned the US top spot in capability for mass destruction.
The culture within the military must produce service members that carry out their role without asking questions, thus the military is a structure of repression and intimidation. Service members who are indoctrinated well can imagine that they are completely different than the enemies they are fighting. They can kill and believe that they are good guys fighting bad guys. I’ve heard it myself, grown men, professional soldiers, Green Berets, they refer to the enemy as “bad guys”. It all makes sense when you imagine the upbringing of a boy in the US, the games boys play, the way they are told boys and men act. All of these cultural fragments collect in the military where nostalgia and a desire to be heroic create a hot mess of misogynistic, dehumanizing, disregard for the human spirit. Competition and the opportunity to prove ones self push men and women past the point of logical human behavior.
The human rights violations named here constitute an undue suppression and abuse of thousands of service members in one way or another. Sexual assault, stigma, and lack of adequate care are at the core of the deterioration of service members living conditions. Operation Recovery seeks to raise awareness about the abuse of service members and the denial of their right to heal. Through relationship building within the most affected communities and transformative organizing service members are being empowered to reclaim their humanity and stand up for the right to heal.
Clapham, A. (2007). Human rights:a very short introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hutto Sr, J. (2008, June 11). Soldiers: Know your rights! what every soldier should know before resisting.Alternet. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/world/87757/?page=1
Jackson, D. (2012, March 21). Soldier's lawyer: Afghanistan war is on trial. USA Today.
Maguen, S., & Litz, B. Department Of Veterans' Affairs, National Center for PTSD. (2012). Moral injury at war. Retrieved from website: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/moral_injury_at_war.asp
Seal, K. H., Bertenthal, D., Maguen, S., Gima, K., Chu, A., & Marmar, C. R. (2008). “Getting beyond “Don't ask; don't tell”: An evaluation of US Veterans Administration post-deployment mental health screening of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.” American Journal of Public Health, 98, 714–720. See also “Comparisons of PTSD rates” Journal of Traumatic Stress-Volume 23, Issue 1, Feb, 2010 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jts.20486/pdf
Stalsburg, B. (2011, July). rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military the quick fact. Retrieved from http://servicewomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Rape-Sexual-Assault-a...
United Nations (2012) Universal declaration of human rights. Retrieved March 15, 2012 from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
Veterans for Common Sense. (2012, January). iraq and afghanistan impact repor. Retrieved from http://veteransforcommonsense.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/VCS_IAIR_JAN_2012.pdf
Watson, J. (2012, March 23). Army: Ptsd treatable; some diagnosed return to war. Seattle Times. Retrieved from
Whitlock, C., & Morello, (2012, March 22). Army to charge robert bales with murder in killing of afghan civilians. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/army-to-charge-robert-bales-with-murder-in-killing-of-afghan-civilians/2012/03/22/gIQAvWOZUS_story.html