MILITARY SEXUAL TRAUMA (MST) DISABILITY CLAIMS: Exacerbating a shameful backlog of almost 1 million veterans’ disability claims, additional barriers confront survivors of military sexual violence seeking disability benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA defines MST as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training” (38 CFR 1720D). Institutional bias and a two-tiered claims policy that favors claimants with combat experience effectively punishes many men and women with conditions related to MST. According to data uncovered by SWAN in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, VA rejected two out of three Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) claims related to MST in FY 2008-2010.
MST survivors are at a severe disadvantage in meeting the VA’s requirement of proving that their disability is connected to in-service trauma for two main reasons: first, most sexual violence goes unreported, making it almost impossible to meet VA’s standard of proof for a claim; and second, until very recently, the service branches enforced various policies destroying a survivors’ evidence of abuse. For instance, prior to 2010 DOD policy authorized the destruction of rape kits after one year, and sexual harassment and sexual assault reports after 2 to 5 years, further compounding veterans’ inability to substantiate their claims.

Time and time again, women veterans tell us that the care they receive at VA Medical Centers is inadequate. While the VA has made notable strides in women’s health care, many gender-specific services simply do not exist at VA, or are difficult to access. Furthermore, some women report that the VA is an unwelcoming, uncomfortable, and hostile place for women and that insensitivity among VA staff or fellow patients is common.

Some evidence suggests that MST survivors who have been treated in military medical settings experience a “second victimization” while under care, often reporting increased rates of depression and PTSD. Female rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment survivors who have used VA health services reported a lower quality of care and dissatisfaction with VA care compared to women using outside care.

SWAN’s POSITION: The nation owes its veterans a huge debt and the VA has been established to provide health care and disability benefits to help meet that obligation. SWAN believes that in order to successfully achieve its mission, the VA must ensure that women receive the full spectrum of quality health care and maintain a disability and pension system that is fair and actually designed to serve the needs of veterans. Passing the 2013 Ruth Moore Act will help to resolve the MST VA claims crisis. To read more about how SWAN is reforming VA claims for survivors of sexual violence, click here.