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Twice Betrayed, Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma Face Discrimination at the VA | The Nation

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Zoe Carpenter

Zoë Carpenter

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Twice Betrayed, Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma Face Discrimination at the VA




Military sexual assault

According to Ruth Moore, she was 18, just months out of Navy boot camp when an officer raped her, twice. Although Moore reported the crimes to a chaplain, her attacker was never prosecuted. After a suicide attempt and a stay in a psychiatric facility, Moore was repeatedly denied disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, because the VA said she could not prove the rape.

The VA discriminates against thousands of military sexual trauma (MST) survivors like Moore each year, alleges a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Service Women’s Action Network and the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School. In trying to obtain compensation for the impact of sexual trauma on their mental health, survivors face bureaucratic hurdles and long delays. Ultimately, a disproportionate number of their claims are rejected.

The report is based on previously withheld data that the VA released to settle Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the Yale clinic. The numbers reveal that the VA grants disability claims for PTSD related to sexual assault at significantly lower rates than for PTSD caused by other types of trauma. In 2011, for example, the VA granted benefits to 74.2 percent of veterans who submitted non-MST-related trauma claims, but only to 44.6 percent of those with MST-related PTSD, a gap of nearly 30 percent.

“Under the current regulations, survivors of military sexual trauma have to provide a decent amount of documentation in order to get a compensation pension exam, as part of the benefits process,” explained Rose Carmen Goldberg, one of the authors of the report. Because of widespread retaliation, only a fraction of those who are sexually assaulted while in service report the crimes against them. Without a paper trail it is difficult for them to meet the VA’s evidentiary standards. Even with it, the report found, “claims adjudicators often fail to give adequate weight to the evidence that MST survivors do produce.”

Veterans with PTSD linked to combat or other sources of trauma, on the other hand, don’t bear the same burden of proof: their own testimony is sufficient to prove that their trauma is connected to their military service. “We think that very obvious and overt discrimination in the regulations is definitely an underlying factor, but there are probably many factors at work,” Golberg said. For example, until 2011 the Defense Department destroyed all restricted reports of sexual assault that were more than five years old.

As incidences of sexual assault in the military have risen, so have associated claims of PTSD, which increased by more than half between 2010 and 2011. Women who suffered a sexual assault in the military are nine times more likely to develop PTSD than other female veterans. More than 15,800 veterans filed claims for PTSD related to sexual trauma in the five years spanning 2008 and 2012. About two-thirds of the applicants were women.

The VA’s ruling determines whether they have access to an essential lifeline. Female veterans are the fastest growing sector of the homeless population, according to The New York Times, and more than half of female veterans living on the street were sexually assaulted in the service. “The mental health effects of PTSD related to sexual trauma can make it very difficult if not impossible to work, so in many cases [disability benefits] will be their only source of income,” said Goldberg.

Overall, men are 10 percent more likely to be granted benefits for PTSD than women. That’s because so many women with PTSD link it to sexual trauma, while men are more likely to suffer PTSD related to combat and other traumas, which the VA grants benefits for at much higher rates. However, male survivors of sexual assault are even less likely to receive PTSD benefits than female MST survivors.

A veteran’s chance of receiving benefits for MST-related PTSD also varies by location. For example, the VA regional office in St. Paul, Minnesota, granted only a quarter of PTSD benefit claims related to sexual trauma. Compared with non-MST claims, the discrepancy was 35 percent.

Congress is considering several bills aimed at ending the discrimination detailed in the report. One, named for Ruth Moore, who was eventually granted full benefits after twenty-three years, would allow an assessment from a mental health professional to serve as corroborating evidence, and shift the burden of proof to put “every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran.” That bill passed the House in June, but has languished in the Senate. Two other bills to reform the claims process are pending in the House.

“The reforms that are needed are very urgent,” said Golberg. “We’re hoping the data will speak strongly for the changes that are needed.”

Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps captain whose disability claim related to sexual harassment was initially denied, pointed out that a rejection from the VA is a veteran’s second betrayal. “VA’s claims process often serves as a brutal and extended retriggering of veterans’ most horrific experiences, when no one believed them, when no one supported them and they were made to feel as though they did something to deserve being raped, assaulted or harassed in uniform,” she said.

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The Senate is now debating reforms to the military justice system responsible for that first betrayal. The Defense Authorization Act, expected to pass before Thanksgiving, includes measures preventing commanders from overturning jury convictions and criminalizes retaliation against victims who report crimes. Several senators are expected to offer amendments that would institute even greater reform. The most contentious is a proposal from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would give military lawyers, rather than commanding officers, the authority to decide whether an alleged crime warrants prosecution.

Since many perpetrators are within the victim’s chain of command, the measure is intended to limit retaliation and improve reporting, which would make it easier for survivors who develop PTSD to obtain benefits as veterans. The Pentagon and top Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, however, are fighting to maintain commanders’ authority. The authorization bill could hit the Senate floor as early as this week, and opponents are likely to use procedural rules to make sure Gillibrand’s amendment cannot pass with less than sixty votes. So far, forty-seven senators have pledged their support.

Take Action: Tell Your Senators to Act Now to Address Sexual Assault in the Military

Mychal Denzel Smith: misogyny has no place in progressive politics.

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