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VA benefits process called 'unrealistic' for military sex assault victims

An informational poster about sexual assault awareness month, which occurs in April.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN J. RILEY/COURTESY U.S. NAVY

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 18, 2012

WASHINGTON — Advocates for sexual assault victims said the veterans benefits process is so difficult that it risks retraumatizing those individuals and cheats many out of the help they deserve.

“We’re looking at a life-and-death situation with this claims process,” said Anu Bhagwati, director of the Service Women’s Action Network.

She told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the current VA process is “completely unrealistic” for victims, noting that two thirds of all claims for post-traumatic stress disorder related to sexual assaults are refused.

The Defense Department allows sexual assault victims seeking help to file a restricted or unrestricted report. The restricted reports are designed to protect victims’ confidentiality. They can receive treatment and counseling for the assault, but no criminal charges or formal complaints are filed.

Care advocates have praised the option as an important tool to encourage victims to come forward, but the restricted reports cause difficulties when those individuals later file veterans benefits claims for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems related to the assault.

Victims can provide medical tests, transfer requests and other personnel files as secondary proof, but Bhagwati said too often that documentation isn’t enough to prove a connection between the sexual assault and stress disorders.

And in most cases, there might be no documentation at all. According to an estimate from the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, more than 86 percent of all military sexual assault cases go unreported.

Navy veteran Ruth Moore, who was raped by a supervisor during her first overseas assignment, said it took her 23 years of sporadic fighting with VA claims officials to receive benefits and treatment for injuries related to her assault.

“It should not be this way,” she told lawmakers. “If I had been treated promptly and received benefits in a timely manner ... I would not have had to endure homelessness and increased symptoms to the point where I was suicidal.”

Thomas Murphy, director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s compensation service, said officials are working to adjudicate all claims “compassionately and fairly.”

He said officials have relaxed rules to allow more evidence to be permitted proving a PTSD-sexual assault link, including statements from friends or family, records of tests for pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, and outside medical appointments.

Advocacy groups said they back a bill sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, that would require the VA accept any military sexual assault claim if veterans can prove military-related PTSD, even if the sexual assault link is murky.

Cases of fraudulent rape claims are rare in the military, they argued, especially considering that the negative stigma associated with the attacks more frequently discourages legitimate claims from being filed.

VA officials oppose that change, saying that better training and implementation of existing rules will produce better results for the victims.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane