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House committee urges change after staff member reports assault at VA hospital in DC

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2019

WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Thursday urged the Department of Veterans Affairs to adopt more policies to end sexual harassment and assault on VA campuses after an alleged attack last week on one of the committee’s staff members at the DC hospital.

Andrea Goldstein, a Navy veteran and senior policy adviser for Congress’ new Women Veterans Task Force, said she was assaulted by a man inside the front atrium at the VA Medical Center in Washington on Sept. 20. Goldstein told the New York Times that a man slammed her below the waist and told her, “You look like you could use a good time.”

Goldstein and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, spoke to reporters outside the DC hospital Thursday. Goldstein said she believed her attacker was a fellow veteran.

“I experienced a crime and indignity that women veterans around the nation face while trying to access health care,” Goldstein said.

She said she had in her bag a copy of draft legislation that aims to prevent sexual harassment and assault at VA facilities. The alleged assault occurred in plain sight with multiple witnesses, she said, and she told three employees about it before the police were called.

Law enforcement is investigating. The VA Inspector General’s Office is also looking into the incident, VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said.

“These are serious allegations and VA is treating them as such,” Mandreucci said in an email. “VA will not tolerate this alleged behavior, and we are committed to delivering justice. That’s why, in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we can’t comment further.”

A national survey published by the VA this year found that one in four female veterans reported harassment from other veterans at VA facilities.

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published the results of a study on barriers to VA mental health services. The report contained stories from women who were cat-called at VA facilities, which researchers said was particularly unsettling for women suffering from military sexual trauma.

Mandreucci said Thursday that the VA had launched an education campaign about sexual harassment that included posters, videos and training materials.

About the VA’s efforts, Goldstein said, “Posters are not policies.”

Takano urged the department to immediately institute mandatory, continuous training for VA staff about what to do as a bystander to sexual harassment and assault, as well as how to support veterans and cooperate with law enforcement in those instances. He also asked that the department better track when sexual harassment and assault occur.

“This recent unfortunate incident with one of our own staffers only underscored what we knew was happening to thousands of women veterans across the country,” Takano said. “We need better metrics, a better reporting system. We need an attitude amongst the VA staffers to be able to make that reporting better.”

Goldstein said she would continue to use the Washington VA Medical Center because the facility has provided her with quality health care.

“I will continue to use this facility,” she said. “When I visit, I will probably walk through that front door, and I am asking VA to do more to ensure all veterans can feel safe doing the same.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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