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Question 21: Making Progress

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In the last 7 years, have you consulted with a mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, etc.) or have you consulted with another health care provider about a mental health related condition? - Question 21, Standard Form 86 "Questionnaire for National Security Positions"

Earlier this year, SWAN began working with several congressional legislators, including Rep. Chellie Pingree and Rep. Jackie Speier, to engage members of the administration to change the wording of security clearance applications so that survivors of sexual violence in the military do not have to disclose counseling they received as a result of their sexual assault. After hearing from many survivors, it became evident that Question 21 is a huge barrier that keeps service members from seeking out counseling or other mental health services following a sexual assault. Answering "Yes" to Question 21 leads to the survivor being subjected to an investigation where they are required to provide the details of their sexual assault to non-medical personnel. Such disclosure can be retriggering and devastatingly retraumatizing.

In addition to the damage Question 21 does to the survivor's heath, answering "Yes" to Question 21 can have other dire consequences. Disclosing mental health counseling can be grounds for not getting a security clearance approved or not having an existing clearance renewed. This effectively ends the careers of service members who require these clearances to do their jobs. And because the SF 86 form is used by anyone requiring a government security clearance, Question 21 follows the service member after they leave the military, making it impossible for them to find appropriate employment in the civilian world.

In 2010 the requirements for Question 21 on the Standard Form 86 were revised to exempt service members from disclosing counseling received for combat-related trauma. This was done In order to remove the stigma of mental health care and to encourage troops to seek out needed help; however, counseling received by sexual assault survivors was not included in that revision. The end result is that survivors of sexual assaults are not getting the treatment they need to heal. Many service members are instead doing whatever they can to cope, suffering in silence and counting the days until their clearance is approved.

One major hurdle to reforming this issue was overcome when SWAN researched and uncovered the complicated route through which the previous Question 21 revisions had been made. Although the Question 21 issue affects members of the military, the Department of Defense (DOD) does not own the form. Changes to SF 86 must be made by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Armed with that critical information, SWAN and our allies in Congress began to aggressively pursue ODNI to change Question 21 to include an exemption for counseling received as a result of a sexual assault. Lawmakers are currently actively engaging ODNI and pushing hard for this policy revision, and their efforts are strengthened by the courageous stories of service members and their supporters who have reached out to SWAN.

In October, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree sent a letter directly to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) asking for sexual assault counseling to be included in the list of exceptions to Question 21. Just last week the Congresswoman received a reply from Director Clapper dated December 7th. The letter can be found here.

It is worth taking note of the hand-written remarks made by Director Clapper. The Director of National Intelligence is one of the most powerful positions in the US intelligence community. For him to add personal remarks onto a policy letter is noteworthy and in this instance, encouraging. SWAN is hopeful that this issue is now becoming one of implementation, rather than one of persuasion. Our supporters in Congress are also hopeful that a decision will be made soon.

It is important that the pressure remain on ODNI. This week a letter was sent to Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USD(I)), asking him to urge Director Clapper to implement the Question 21 changes. The USD(I) serves as the Secretary of Defense's primary representative to the ODNI and his help with this issue will be appreciated.

You can help by contacting your legislators and ask them to join us in pressuring Director Clapper to change Question 21 to include an exception for sexual assault counseling. You can also contact Director Clapper's office and appeal to him directly.

James Clapper, Director

Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Washington, DC 20511

703-733-8600

This post first appeared on servicewomen.org.