Sexual assault victims say VA isn’t doing enough
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 19, 2013
WASHINGTON — Military sexual assault victims say the Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t doing enough to provide care and treatment for their trauma, especially when it comes to men who have been sexually abused.
VA officials insist they are working as quickly as possible to address those concerns, noting that they’ve seen sharp increases recently in the number of veterans receiving care for military sexual trauma.
“But as much as we have done over the last few years, there are significant gaps … that we need to address,” said Dr. Rajiv Jain, VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for patient care services.
More than 85,000 veterans received sexual trauma-related care from VA medical personnel in fiscal 2012, and increase of almost 11 percent from the year before. The number of appointments and care meetings increased more than 13 percent from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2012.
Nearly one in four women seeking any medical care from the VA have reported suffering sexual assault or abuse during their military careers.
That has prompted department officials to bolster their services in recent years, expanding treatment programs, assigning military sexual assault specialists in all VA health facilities, and mandating screening for all veterans entering the system.
But the VA Inspector General and a panel of victims on Friday told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that many of those efforts have fallen short, frustrating and possibly endangering vulnerable veterans.
Brian Lewis, a Navy veteran who was raped by a fellow servicemember in 2000, said of the 12 VA post-traumatic stress disorder residential facilities nationwide that specialize in sexual assault counseling, only one accepts male patients. The department offers no men-only support groups.
“Many people see this as only a women’s issue,” he said. “That is not the case. The VA is fundamentally failing male survivors of military sexual trauma every day.”
But Lisa Wilken, an Air Force veteran assaulted by peers in 1993, said many victims who are frustrated with a lack of offerings by the VA find it impossible to seek care outside the system, because of the department’s reluctance to pay for non-VA counselors. Others said the department’s screening efforts leave too many victims out.
An inspector general investigation found that VA travel voucher policies also make getting care difficult for many victims, and that many of the staffers assigned as the sexual assault care liaison are assigned that role as a secondary responsibility, not a sole focus.
Military sexual assault has become a major focus of lawmakers in recent weeks, albeit more on the prevention and prosecution side than the long-term treatment.
Lawmakers are considering changes to how sex crimes in the ranks are investigated and handled by military legal officials, including the possibility of sending those cases to an outside, independent body.
But committee members say they are worried about the treatment issues too, and have promised to offer more legislation and scrutiny on the topic in coming months.
VA officials have already promised that any veteran who has experienced military sexual trauma can seek care within the system, regardless if they are eligible for other veterans benefits.
Jain said VA has established a working group to address complaints outlined by the inspector general, and said officials are also searching for fixes to the problems brought up by victims at the hearing.