Maine woman inspires federal bill to help military sexual assault victims get VA benefits
ELLSWORTH, Maine — When Ruth Moore was an 18-year-old Navy servicewoman, she was brutally raped by her supervisor, with the trauma ending her military career and beginning decades of misery and self-doubt. A quarter century later, the Milbridge woman is still serving her country — now fighting against sexual assault in the military.
It is still hard for her to tell her story. It begins when Moore enlisted in the U.S. Navy when she was a student at Washington Academy in Machias. Growing up poor in the tiny Washington County town of Pembroke, “college wasn’t an option,” she said.
Months later, she was violently sexually assaulted, twice, by her immediate supervisor when she was stationed at a base on the Azores. That trauma left her with a sexually transmitted disease, a false diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and a doctored-up military record. It also stole her innocence and her hope.
“My dreams were destroyed,” Moore, 44, said Friday.
But her story is also about what has happened in the 25 years since that awful time, as she stopped thinking of herself as a victim and instead became a fighter and worked to right the wrongs that had been done against her and against the many others who have also suffered sexual trauma while in the military.
“I’m still serving my country. Maybe not in a uniform, but I’m still serving my country,” said Moore, who has a ready smile. “This is a problem that America has right now, but we’re still Americans, and I have hope that we can fix this.”
She is heading this week to Washington, D.C., in the company of her husband, Butch, and their 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, to be present as U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree introduces the bill that has her name on it. The Ruth Moore Act aims to reduce the standard of proof for victims of military sexual assault so that they can more easily obtain benefits, similar to how the Veterans Administration two and a half years ago relaxed the burden of proof for combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, introduced the bill in the last Congress. It didn’t pass then, but its need has hardly diminished, said her spokesman Willy Ritch. The congresswoman gets calls every week from veterans who have been sexually assaulted while in uniform, Ritch wrote last week in an email to the BDN. Dozens of them have the same story — often the attack was never reported and never included in their records, so when they later try to file for benefits related to the attack, the Department of Veterans Affairs denies them for lack of proof.
Nearly 90 percent of victims do not report their attack out of fear of retaliation, he wrote. The Ruth Moore Act, if it passes, would make it so that victims need only a diagnosis of a mental health condition and a link between the assault and that condition to receive benefits.
Moore’s bravery in sharing her story publicly has meant a great deal to other survivors, according to the congresswoman.
“Ruth has served her country twice — once when she joined the Navy and again when she made the decision to step forward and tell her story,” Pingree said in a statement. “It was inspiring to watch her testify before Congress last summer. Her testimony was incredibly brave and compelling and when it was over senior officers and members of Congress who were in the room came over to thank her for what she had just done. I’m not sure how many of us could do what she did there that day.”
Moore recalled that day with some amazement.
“The idea of going to Washington, D.C., was really scary,” she said. “I spoke for five minutes. The chairman was crying when I was done. And mine is not the only story. When I spoke, when I testified, it brought to light everything that we endured.”
Moore did not want to give too many details about the sexual assault, which occurred outside the military club on the base.
“It was pretty painful,” she said in an interview.
Then she tried to get help from the military chaplain. When her assailant — a petty officer and her immediate supervisor — found out, he attacked her again in retaliation. Moore , who said before the sexual assaults she was a bright, vibrant teenager who was excited about her future in the military, grew despondent and tried to kill herself. She survived but was thrown in the brig — the military jail — for a few days, then sent back to the U.S. to a psychiatric ward in Bethesda, Md.
“I was scared. I was confused. I was angry,” she said. “They tried to portray me as crazy, and I wasn’t.”
Moore was nonetheless diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which she later learned was standard operating procedure for people who came forward to say they had been sexually assaulted while in uniform. Military higher-ups denied that the rapes had happened, and her attacker was never brought to justice.
“He’s probably retired with a good pension by now,” said her husband, Butch Moore.
Moore’s own difficult journey was just beginning. The chlamydia she contracted after the rapes is likely to have played a part in the nine miscarriages she suffered. She struggled with problems such as social phobia and depression. Her relationship with her first husband “fell apart” about a decade after the attacks, and for a few weeks she was homeless and living out of her van. Then she met Butch while they were both working raking blueberries in Washington County, and he became an important ally and support at a time when even some of her closest family members didn’t believe her.
“I never would have made it on my journey without him. He’s my rock,” she said. “He has given up so much to care for me and be there for Samantha, so we can have a healthy life.”
With her husband’s support, Moore kept fighting to receive the benefits she needed from the Veterans’ Administration. In 2004, she was given a rating of 30 percent disability for depression. It wasn’t the right diagnosis, but it was better than nothing, she said. Then, in 2009, she reapplied when they were living in Vermont. An investigator found that her military records had been tampered with and expunged, and helped Moore to file again for benefits. The VA changed her rating to 70 percent disability.
In 2010, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont got involved with her plight, sending the VA a letter asking why the agency wasn’t helping this veteran. She received a response that floored her.
“In the letter, they actually admit I’d been raped, after all those years,” she said.
Her family returned to Maine, where they have a small farm on a quiet piece of land in Milbridge. There, they raise chickens and goats, grow vegetables and home school Samantha, who is a gifted student and musician.
“I know that I’ve hit peace when I can go out at 5 a.m., with my nightgown, boots, wool coat and mittens and go out to check the goats, and I don’t care what the neighbors think of me,” Moore said.
She also volunteers for the State of Maine Department of Disabled American Veterans.
“It feels good,” she said of the work.
Despite this normalcy, Moore still works hard to have a regular-enough life. She goes grocery shopping late at night, when the stores are emptiest, and suffers from migraines and trouble sleeping. In public, she is hyper-vigilant. At night, she can’t turn off her mind.
“When I lie down, that’s when the squirrel on the treadmill goes at super speed,” she said. “This does affect every day for us.”
One thing that has made those days easier is the simple fact of being believed — by her fellow disabled veterans and by politicians such as Pingree and others who have listened to her speak out in recent years.
“It feels really good. It gives you a hope in humanity,” Moore said. “When I reached out … I thought people would look down at me. It didn’t happen. They believed me. I felt the first public-type of love that I ever felt in my life.”
If, when, the act that bears her name is passed, she will be glad.
“If my testimony will help out other people than it’s been worth it,” Moore said. “I don’t want to be seen as a victim. I want to be seen as a survivor. I do have hope for our country. I have tremendous hope — and optimism.”