Revised VA rules help ex-sailor wake from 27-year nightmare
One rainy night in 1985, Navy Seaman Katherine Glover was raped while on duty at a NATO base in Italy.
Ashamed, fearful of losing her security clearance, and distrustful of her male superiors, Glover didn't report the attack.
She says she didn't breathe a word of the trauma until 2002, when she finally told a representative from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The woman helped get Glover into treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. But with nothing in her record to corroborate what happened that long-ago night in Naples, Glover's quest for disability benefits from the VA always ended the same way: denied. Without proof that she'd been raped - or a link between her Navy service and her medical condition - the agency's benefits division had long refused to grant Glover status as a service-disabled veteran.
Last week, more than five years after filing her latest claim, Glover, 59, finally got good news.
Working with a revised set of guidelines for handling claims involving sexual trauma, the VA concluded that Glover's anxiety, panic attacks and depression render her unable to work. She will receive a monthly stipend of almost $2,800, as well as $150,000 in retroactive benefits, dating to her 2006 application for disability compensation.
"Now, maybe, I can get on with my life," Glover said. "And now maybe, just maybe, some of the other women going through this will be able to get on with their lives, too."
The Virginian-Pilot does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but Glover agreed to share her story in hopes it might inspire other veterans dealing with sexual trauma to come forward.
"Don't wait as long as I waited," Glover said. "Get it out in the open. Find someone that will understand.... Don't hold it in as long as I did."
Glover never envisioned becoming an advocate for female veterans. A cat-loving homebody who's happiest tending plants on her balcony, Glover is an unlikely warrior. Fibromyalgia, a painful disorder characterized by muscle and joint pain, sometimes forces her to use a wheelchair. She is extremely uncomfortable around men and is fearful of going out after dark. Because it was raining the night she was raped, stormy weather often sends her into the closet of her apartment.
Despite those challenges, or maybe because of them, Glover refused to be cowed.
"If more of us don't open up our mouths," she said, "then nothing's going to get done."
The VA's benefits administration recently revamped its handling of disability claims for PTSD related to military sexual trauma - a term covering in-service sexual harassment, assault and rape.
In June, within weeks of starting work as the VA's undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey sent out an agencywide memo instructing claims representatives to apply "proper flexibility and sensitivity" when evaluating disability claims related to military sexual trauma.
Employees should not expect to see evidence in most sexual trauma cases, wrote Hickey, a retired Air Force brigadier general. She noted that statistics show only 20 percent of military women and 7 percent of military men who have been sexually assaulted actually report the crimes.
Hickey told examiners handling sexual trauma claims to "err on the side of the veteran," accepting an individual's statement and secondary evidence of behavioral changes as credible evidence of trauma.
But it's taken some time for those precepts to be applied.
Last summer, Glover's advocate in her quest for benefits - Judy McClary, a registered nurse and certified legal nurse consultant - turned to U.S. Sen. Jim Webb's office for help with the case.
Webb's office sent a letter on Glover's behalf to the VA's office in Roanoke. The reply, from the acting director of the regional office, appeared to contradict Hickey's guidance on sexual trauma cases.
"She contends in 1985 she was sexually assaulted," Leigh Skeens-Wilson wrote to Webb in September. "Review of her service treatment records and military personnel records failed to show credible evidence or markers to substantiate this claim."
In explaining why Glover's benefits were denied, Skeens-Wilson wrote, "there was no credible evidence to show the claimed stressor occurred, nor did we have a confirmed diagnosis. We cannot accept a diagnosis of PTSD from a nurse."
Glover was in her late 20s when she decided to join the Navy. She looked forward to starting a new life and traveling the world. In 1985, she was assigned to a NATO base in Naples for a three-year tour. Albums full of yellowing photographs depict a pretty, long-haired woman posing in front of churches, visiting Mount Vesuvius, and joking around at birthday parties in the enlisted barracks.
On the cool, rainy night that Glover revisits so often in her mind, she was working the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift at the international motor pool. She was one of four American dispatchers; most of the drivers were Italian soldiers.
Each hour of the overnight shift, the dispatcher had to scan the parked vehicles with a flashlight, looking for bombs. Glover said she was in the midst of her rounds in a deserted lot when her attacker struck from behind.
She blacked out after multiple blows to her head. Coming to moments later, she found her uniform blouse open and her pants around her ankles. The man held a knife across her throat and told her, in Italian, "Keep your mouth shut."
She never got a good look at his face.
"Look, I didn't know who it was, and I didn't want anybody to know, because I blamed myself," Glover said. "I blamed myself for being in the position that allowed it to happen to me. Sometimes I still blame myself."
Glover hastily arranged to take leave. She flew to Hawaii, where she said she spent a month at a military hotel, healing physically and emotionally.
"I had a lot of time on the books. I chose to just go," she said. "I didn't want to expose myself to anybody."
Gradually, her battered nose healed. So did her spirit - to a point.
She willed herself to move on. "I knew it was still there," she said, "but I shoved the door closed on it."
She returned to duty in Italy and switched to the day shift. She stopped going out after dark. She armed herself with Mace and a knife.
A former soldier who served at the motor pool then noted in a letter supporting Glover's disability claim that the once-smiling, happy sailor had changed.
"Her eyes were sad," the soldier wrote in 2008. "She didn't smile like she did before."
That letter turned out to be a crucial piece of evidence in Glover's case.
Edna MacDonald, deputy director of the VA's compensation service in Washington, said that since December, the agency has assigned all claims related to military sexual trauma to a small pool of workers in each regional VA office.
The same month, MacDonald said, those newly dedicated claims employees got hands-on training on how to comb through benefits claims for "markers" that may indicate a service member suffered a sexual trauma in the military - things such as behavioral changes, requests for transfers, information for family members and buddy statements.
If a military sexual trauma claim lacks medical evidence, employees are quicker to order what's known as a "compensation and pension" exam.
Kathy Sullivan, director of the VA's Roanoke office, said the changes played a part in Glover's outcome.
In 2008, the soldier's statement about Glover's changed behavior - from smiling and happy to quiet and sad - didn't qualify as "credible evidence" of her claim. A recent review gave it more weight.
"The buddy statement was very important to her claim," Sullivan said. "It helped provide corroboration to her statement."
The buddy statement alone was not enough to change the VA's earlier ruling, Sullivan said. But Glover's account of the attack, paired with the letter, provided enough evidence for the VA to order a psychiatric exam from a third-party physician.
The doctor who did Glover's exam on Jan. 10 found her to suffer from PTSD with symptoms including anxiety, hypervigilance, depression, memory impairment and difficulty concentrating. Once the VA had that diagnosis, the outcome was clear.
"We don't have specific evidence," Sullivan said. "We can't prove this rape occurred, but we have corroborating evidence. And we know that it is generally not reported and can be very hard to establish."
After decades of keeping a dark secret, then sharing it only to spend years feeling as if the VA didn't believe her, Glover is happy that her voice has finally been heard.
The benefits will allow her to live much more comfortably. Since 2007, her only income has been $800 a month in Social Security disability for her fibromyalgia. She lives in a subsidized apartment and was relying on food stamps to make ends meet. Now, as a service-disabled veteran, she'll get to shop at military commissaries.
She plans to continue therapy for PTSD at a VA medical center in Richmond. She recently was asked to talk to a military group about her ordeal, and she's considering it.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to be back to the same way I was," she said this week.
"I probably won't go out at night, or during a rainstorm, but I want to come to a peace of mind that a rainstorm is just what it is - God's way of cleansing the Earth - and I'm home safe.
"It's over," she said of the night she was raped. "It's over, and I'm going in a new direction now."
Distributed by MCT Information Services