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Veterans Seeking Mental Health Care for Sexual Assault Face Unacceptable Hurdles

Anu Bhagwati

SOURCE: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine officer and executive director and co-founder of Service Women's Action Network, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, before the Senate subcommittee on Personnel hearing on sexual assault in the military.

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A report released last week by the Institute of Medicine that assessed the health needs of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans made national headlines by revisiting the high rate of sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. While the Pentagon estimates that as many as one in three women experience sexual assault while serving in the military and 86 percent of these crimes go unreported, one particularly chilling study cited in the report showed that servicewomen who experience sexual assault in the military are nine times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, compared to other female veterans. What the report failed to mention is that when female veterans seek mental health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, for PTSD related to sexual assault, they face long wait times, and their claims are more likely than other PTSD claims to be dismissed because of a lack of documentation.

Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs can immediately act to alleviate the injustice faced by female veterans seeking VA services by ending the backlog and by passing the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, which would remove the burden of evidence the VA currently places on the backs of survivors of military sexual assault. The military must also recognize that women who volunteer to serve face an unacceptable risk of sexual assault by their fellow service members, and our country cannot live up to its promise of caring for our heroes as long as this disturbing trend persists.

End the Department of Veterans Affairs backlog

For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, challenges continue long after returning from deployment. Members of our military who have been injured or have experienced trauma in the line of duty have an obvious need for health services upon returning home, and the VA has been rightly criticized for failing to provide these services in a timely manner. There are currently an estimated 1 million veterans who are waiting for the department to process their disability and benefits claims. And although the VA reports an average wait time of 273 days, veterans filing their first claim wait an average of 315 days. Moreover, 58,000 veterans have been waiting in excess of two years.

The VA has presented a plan to eliminate the backlog and has set a goal to process all claims in less than 125 days by 2015. As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and troops return home by the thousands, it is imperative that the department effectively implement the change necessary to allow our men and women in uniform to access the care they need and the benefits they deserve without long delays and bureaucratic hurdles. The VA must end the backlog so that all veterans, regardless of gender, will receive health care for the injuries and trauma they have sustained while serving our country.

End sexual assault in the military

Women make up roughly 15 percent of the active-duty military force and comprise 11 percent of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 150 servicewomen have laid down their lives in sacrifice for our safety and security, and two more have earned the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor in combat. Furthermore, the role of servicewomen will only become more important as their representation in the ranks grows and they integrate into combat positions that were previously off limits under the ground-combat exclusion policy, which was repealed earlier this year. In short, servicewomen have performed their duties, and now it’s time for military leadership to perform theirs by ending the epidemic of sexual assaults within the ranks.

An estimated one in three women have experienced sexual assault in the military. In 2011 alone the Pentagon estimated that 19,000 men and women had been sexually assaulted, but less than 14 percent of these crimes were actually reported. Though this culture of underreporting is problematic in itself, the VA exacerbates this injustice by requiring documentation related to the sexual assault to approve a related PTSD claim. Essentially, the military recognizes that an overwhelming majority of sexual assaults go unreported, yet it also demands that veterans produce documentation to prove that the sexual assault occurred in order to receive treatment.

Pass the Ruth Moore Act of 2013

Last month, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the Ruth Moore Act of 2013 into both chambers of Congress. If passed, the bill would remove the unfair burden of proof on veterans who have experienced sexual assault in the military by requiring VA health professionals to resolve every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran, regardless of whether there is an official record of the trauma.

The requirements of the bill are not unprecedented. Prior to 2010 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who had seen combat were routinely denied care for PTSD because they could not produce formal documentation—such as a combat decoration, for example—which validated their combat experiences. The VA eventually relaxed these documentation standards because they were denying too many veterans care based on the paperwork they could produce as opposed to the experiences they recounted.

Unfortunately, service members who have experienced PTSD stemming from military sexual assault are still held to a more stringent standard despite the high rate of sexual assault within the ranks. Only 32 percent of PTSD claims stemming from military sexual assault are approved, compared to 54 percent of all PTSD claims. The VA has recognized that a veteran’s paperwork may not accurately reflect the nature of his or her service when it comes to combat-related PTSD, and this almost certainly holds true for service members who have experienced sexual assault. If passed into law, the Ruth Moore Act would ensure that a veteran’s PTSD claim would not be contingent upon a paper trail, which, by no fault of the veteran, probably does not exist.

Conclusion

The Department of Veterans Affairs must end the backlog of disability and benefits claims. The VA can request patience from our veterans, but our veterans cannot delay the effects of injuries or trauma incurred during their time of service. Every day that a veteran must wait for the VA to process a claim is a day that a veteran’s health needs go unaddressed.

Congress must also pass the Ruth Moore Act of 2013 so that veterans who have experienced military sexual assault will not be wronged twice—first by being subjected to the assault, and second by being denied mental health services stemming from the trauma.

If this country is to fully honor the service of our men and women in uniform, the Department of Defense must do everything in its power to end sexual assault in the military. Until that happens, passing the Ruth Moore Act and ending the VA backlog are merely bandages on a very ugly wound on our nation’s armed forces.

Katie Miller is the Special Assistant to the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

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