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Discharge upheld for airman who reported sexual assault

Dec. 5, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The discharge of Airman 1st Class Trent Smith was upheld by a medical board on Dec. 4.
The discharge of Airman 1st Class Trent Smith was upheld by a medical board on Dec. 4. (Used with permission from DW photography studio)
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A medical board has upheld the discharge of a security forces airman who claims he was improperly diagnosed with a personality disorder after he reported being sexually assaulted by a superior.

Airman 1st Class Trent Smith, who was featured in an Oct. 14 Air Force Times cover story, had sought counseling to help deal with the trauma of the alleged assault. The psychologist who treated Smith diagnosed him with a rare personality disorder and recommended separation from the service.

Smith enlisted the help of advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders to help fight the discharge in his appeal to the medical board.

An independent psychiatric assessment ordered by his private attorneyfound no evidence Smith suffers from a personality disorder. An Air Force review also took issue with the diagnosis but said Smith was still unfit— a conclusion upheld in a Dec. 4 hearing before the Air Force Formal Physical Evaluation Board in San Antonio.

“His pattern of behavior suggests some level of problematic coping,” the Air Force reviewer wrote. “In my opinion ... [it is] sufficient to support the diagnosis of personality disorder not otherwise specified.”

Elizabeth Kristen, an attorney from the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center who represented Smith, said the group plans to make a final appeal to the Air Force secretary.

Veterans groups have said the military unfairly uses personality disorders to discharge service members, including service members who are victims of sexual assault. Personality and adjustment disorders are considered to have existed before troops join the military, which leaves them unable to obtain disability compensation and mental health treatment. The diagnosis can also make it difficult to find future employment.

Smith said he was sexually assaulted two months after he arrived at his first duty station at Vogelweh Air Base, Germany, in spring 2012. He made a restricted report to the base’s sexual assault response coordinator, which allowed him to get counseling without alerting the chain of command. Three months later, he made an unrestricted report, which launched an investigation.

A memo from the 86th Airlift Wing shows the Air Force concluded the incident between Smith and the staff sergeant was consensual and declined to prosecute the alleged assailant. The staff sergeant instead received administrative punishment for engaging in an unprofessional relationship, according to the memo.

Meanwhile, Smith was barred from deploying or carrying a weapon, which left him unable to do his job. In November 2012, he was granted a humanitarian transfer to Travis Air Force Base, Calif.

The weapon and deployment bans were initially lifted at Travis. But Smith said they were reinstated weeks later when he sought out a mental health provider to continue treatment for the trauma.

Smith, who is bisexual, said fellow security forces members harassed him because he couldn’t carry a weapon and because of his sexual orientation. He was moved twice, settling in a non-security forces job at the base chapel where he still works.

Smith told his psychologist he no longer wanted to serve in security forces but wished to remain in the Air Force in another career field. But Smith was ineligible to retrain because he did not have the required 35 months in service.

At a therapy session in April, Smith said his provider gave him the results of her psychological testing.

She described Smith as “extremely guarded and difficult to work with interpersonally” and at times uncooperative in group therapy, refusing to contribute to discussions. The provider also wrote Smith had pointed a gun to his head and threatened suicide while at Vogelweh — an incident Air Force documents show there is no evidence of.

“Recommend immediate processing of separation from the military,” the psychologist concluded in May after five months of treatment.

Smith received an independent psychiatric evaluation at the University of California, San Francisco, in anticipation for the medical review board, Kristen said.

The Air Force correctly diagnosed Smith with post-traumatic stress disorder, the attorney said. But the review found no evidence of a personality disorder.

“We went in front of the physical evaluation board that rules whether you are unfit or fit for duty. We presented them with evidence we believe met the standard of being fit. The board seemed only interested in evidence from the past. It didn’t seem interested in his current health status,” Kristen said.

Further, Kristen said, the initial diagnosis could follow Smith throughout his life.

Protect Our Defenders president Nancy Parrish said in a statement that Smith’s case “is sadly a typical example of the reckless disregard with which military leadership and health officials too often respond to reports of rape and sexual assault within the ranks. The barriers and retaliation that Airman Smith has faced are indicative of the suffering of so many unknown victims.”

Smith said in a telephone interview after the board’s decision that he was disappointed and confused by the ruling. “What kind of message are you sending when a person is assaulted, reports the assault, has emotional trauma and you kick them out?” he said.

“I’ve never been in trouble. I’m participating in a wide array of activities. I’m going to school, working on my pilot’s license,” Smith said. “Obviously, I’m willing to return to security forces. I’m willing to do anything to stay in the military. I just want to return to duty.”

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