Ex-officer: Sex assault victims struggle for VA benefits
By Rick Maze, Military Times

WASHINGTON – Victims of sexual assault have more difficulty getting benefits than veterans suffering other service-connected trauma disabilities, a former military officer told a House panel Wednesday.

Only one in three claims for post-traumatic stress related to military sexual trauma are approved by the Veterans Affairs Department, compared with half of all other PTSD claims, said former Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, or SWAN.

In testimony before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's disability assistance panel, Bhagwati said there also are signs of gender bias in the disability rating provided to PTSD victims.

"Women were more likely to receive a 10% to 30% rating and men were more likely to receive a 70% to 100% disability rating," she said.

The problem for sexual assault victims is proving their trauma is a result of an incident that occurred during military service. Part of that involves providing the right kind of evidence, and having it accepted, she said. But there are other issues, such as VA rules that can require victims to have new exams to verify they have PTSD.

"We know from talking to countless veterans that these exams serve no purpose, and in fact often unfairly reverse the diagnosis" made by a VA sexual trauma counselor, she said.

"These experiences often take years or even decades for veterans to come to grips with or to talk comfortably about," she said. "Veterans should not be forced to repeat them to complete strangers who often lack the sensitivity or professional qualifications to speak to survivors of sexual trauma. It is an absolutely murderous process. It is not an issue of requiring more evidence; it needs requiring less evidence."

A Navy veteran, Ruth Moore, provided a prime example of what sexual assault victims face. Moore said she was raped in 1987 on her first overseas assignment by a supervisor, "not once, but twice."

Moore said she was discharged from the Navy after suffering from depression, being treated for a sexually transmitted disease she got during her alleged rape, and after attempting suicide. "No prosecution was ever made against the perpetrator," she said. "In hindsight, it was easier for the military to get rid of me than admit to a rape."

Moore said she was diagnosed just before her discharge with a borderline personality disorder, which she said "was the standard diagnosis" for sexual assault victims. "I did not have a personality disorder," she said.

Moore filed for veterans disability benefits in 1987 for PTSD but was denied. She was denied again in 2003, because "I did not submit enough evidence to prove that I was raped."

She did receive a 30% disability rating for depression after she sought the help of Disabled American Veterans in preparing her claim.

Her disability was increased to 70% in 2009 after her records were reviewed by a military sexual trauma coordinator at a VA hospital in Vermont, and ultimately she was determined to also qualify for additional benefits based on unemployability — a determination that came after she enlisted the help of Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vermont.

"This process took me 23 years to resolve, and I am one of the fortunate ones," she said. "If I had been treated promptly and received benefits in a timely manner back at the time of my discharge, my life would have been much different."

Joy Ilem, deputy legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, shared some of SWAN's concerns. Complaints tend to be focused on the disability claims process, she said.

"They express a feeling of being re-traumatized in their efforts to get help" from VA, even after providing evidence, statements from family or friends, detailed accounts of the incident and treatment records, she said.

VA officials said the process is being improved.

"VA is aware that, because of the personal and sensitive nature of the military sexual trauma stressors in these cases, it is often difficult for the victim to report and document the event when it occurs," said Thomas Murphy, director of VA's compensation service.
The available evidence is often insufficient," he said.
VA will accept statements from family members, roommates, clergy, other service members, and sexual assault coordinators and victims advocates when official records don't corroborate a claim. Additionally, VA could accept evident of behavioral changes, Murphy said, such as requests for transfer, a sudden drop in work performance, substance abuse, depression, panic attacks and other changes.

Bhagwati said the acceptance of these statements or behavioral changes depends on the VA employee handling the claim, and there is inconsistency in their decisions.