Two veterans’ advocacy groups are suing the U.S. Veterans Administration, claiming the organization discriminates against former service personnel with medical problems related to sexual assault or harassment. According to representatives from the Service Women’s Action Network and the Vietnam Veterans of America, when veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by sexual trauma come to the VA with disability claims, they are forced to go to extraordinary lengths to prove the assault or harassment took place before compensation is provided. For claimants, a paper trail proving a complaint had been filed at the time of the sexual assault or incident of harassment will often suffice as proof. But this is usually lacking in sexual trauma cases because most victims don’t report the harassment or the attack, fearing retaliation or hostility if they do. In order to keep disability claims alive, veterans in this situation must present other supporting evidence that suggests something significant and unpleasant occurred, such as: a history of being treated for depression or anxiety; a dramatic change in performance on the job; copies of emails or letters to family or friends discussing an attack; records of sudden weight loss; or requests for pregnancy tests and/or treatment for an STD. These are considered “markers” for sexual trauma by the VA and can be used to help build a case by those seeking disability compensation because they are unable to work. But as critics point out, the procedure just described is more reminiscent of a court trial than a medical benefits case. When PTSD is suspected following combat or military field experiences, the sworn testimony of the victim plus a review of the case by one mental health professional is usually enough to convince the VA to grant a disability claim. In 2013, 86 percent of the reported cases of sexual trauma in the military involved female victims. This has led some to suspect a double standard exists in the Veterans Administration system with respect to the way disability claims for PTSD are being adjudicated. And up until 2014, things weren’t any better in the area of basic healthcare: veterans seeking counseling or other health services for sexual trauma could not even get that — unless they provided some sort of proof they were telling the truth about the source of their suffering. Fortunately, the Department of Defense revised those standards last year, but equality and fairness in the disability claims process has been slow to come.
Veterans Administration Responds to the Crisis
Whether in response to the lawsuit (filed last July) or simply because of a more enlightened outlook, there do appear to be signs of change in the VA’s approach to sexual trauma. Some of the recent steps it has taken include:
- Hiring more physicians, nurses, counselors and social workers with experience treating military sexual trauma victims.
- Expanding mental health services to reservists and National Guard members who were sexually assaulted while on inactive duty.
- Adding staffers to advise and assist female veterans applying for VA benefits.
- Allowing women whose past claims for sexual trauma-related benefits were turned down to submit new applications.
- Expediting benefit applications that have been backlogged for a significant period of time (sometimes years).
Incredibly, up until recently the Department of Defense had permitted military investigators and medical personnel to destroy sexual assault reports after two years and rape kits after just one, undermining even the claims of victims who did follow recommended procedure by reporting the crimes. That policy has been changed, but that is only one small step toward revolution in a system that badly needs it. Of the 5,601 reported cases of military sexual assault in 2013, only 484 were brought to trial and just 376 convictions were obtained. A confidential 2012 Pentagon report estimated 26,000 women and men had been sexually assaulted while serving their country in 2012 alone, and assuming the numbers were similar in 2013, it means only 20 percent to 25 percent of those being victimized are coming forward to press for justice. One VA study found that 23 percent of all women serving in the Armed Forces had experienced sexual assault or harassment. With the number of female veterans now surpassing 2 million, this statistic represents a half-million women who were mistreated and abused while doing their duty and serving their country. Another 2014 Pentagon study found that 62 percent of women who reported sexual trauma were shunned or criticized by peers or authority figures. This number is quite revealing, and it explains why many women who were attacked or harassed say they chose not to file charges.
Confronting a Continuing American Tragedy
The statistics make it clear the military has an ongoing problem with sexual abuse and misconduct. Both the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration have been slow to respond to this reality, although signs of change appear to be in the air. If it takes lawsuits to bring progress, so be it. But injustice is being perpetrated and change cannot come fast enough. An epidemic of sexual abuse has been ruining lives and staining the reputation of our Armed Forces for years, leaving emotionally wounded veterans stranded in their pain and without hope for the future. This reality is sad and grim and a testament to a system that is broken and needs repairing in a hurry.