Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma Continue to Face Uphill Battle in Military

Washington, DC – John Hall (D-NY), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Michael Michaud (D-ME), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, conducted a hearing to evaluate military sexual trauma (MST) issues.  The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) refers to MST as the experiences of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault that occurred while a veteran was in the military. The hearing focused on ways in which the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the Department of Defense (DoD) can better address the needs of veterans impacted by MST and identify ways to better prevent, treat and properly compensate them.

“Veterans should be able to have access to treatment facilities and qualified staff with care and benefits delivered by employees who are properly trained to be sensitive to MST related issues,” said Chairman Hall.  “Veterans need access to appropriate health care providers who have experience working with MST survivors.  VA and DoD need to ensure that the proper treatment is available.  MST survivors continually express frustration with the disability claims process, especially in trying to prove to the VA that the actual assault ever happened.  For many women and men, when their disability claims for post-traumatic stress disorder related to MST are denied, they suffer a secondary injury, which results in an exacerbation of these symptoms.”

According to a 1995 DoD study of sexual victimization among active duty service members, acts of sexual harassment were reported by 78% of women service members and 38% of military men.  Another study found that rates of sexual assault and verbal sexual harassment were higher during wartime than peacetime in their sample study population.  One study found that 23% of female users of the VA health care system reported having experienced sexual assault while in the military.  More recently, VHA reported that as of October 20, 2009, of the 5,340,754 patients seeking outpatient care at VHA facilities in FY 2009, 1.2% (65,264) of patients reported MST-related conditions.

Witnesses discussed the barriers faced by service members who are exposed to sexual trauma during their military service.  According to Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier, “90 percent of victims never report assaults within the military because its culture is so hostile to them.”  Anuradha Bhagwati of Service Women’s Action Network explains that MST survivors are likely to be further traumatized if they report the incident and the information becomes public.  She says, “There is simply no guarantee that the chain of command will support survivors if they come forward.”  Veteran advocates discussed the need for perpetrators to receive appropriate punishment for sexual assault and harassment, claiming that offenders are often relocated to another duty station or demoted rank instead of serving a jail sentence.  Representing DoD, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Kaye Whitley discussed how the military addresses sexual assault and cares for victims, but failed to address the disciplinary policy for perpetrators in her testimony.

“Service members who experience military sexual trauma and are brave enough to speak out about their experiences are often marginalized,” said Chairman Michaud.  “For many, it means the end of their military career while their offenders often times remain unscathed.  We must do better by the women and men who experience military sexual trauma.”

Additional recommendations to ensure proper treatment and benefits for MST survivors within the VA system included improved outreach to victims to alert them of available services and treatment options.  Ms. Bhagwati suggested that MST survivors should have the option of fee-based care for all treatment, to combat lack of privacy, child care, and availability of evening or weekend appointments at some VA facilities.  Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Project Coordinator Jennifer Hunt recommended better tracking of MST survivors within the VHA and VBA systems.  She urges VA to “track MST-related care at all VHA medical facilities, so that MST treatment data are readily accessible across the VA system, as recommended by the VA’s Office of Inspector General” and “identify, track and report to Congress the outcomes of disability claims that involve MST.”

Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Committee Bob Filner (D-CA) said, “Today’s hearing shows the clear need for more gender-specific research and more tracking of this issue.  Until the VA documents and records MST, instead of including MST survivors in a more general PTSD category, we will not fully understand the depth of the problem or ensure that veterans are receiving proper treatment.  VA and DoD must work together to ensure victims – whether they report MST while in-service or not – do not face such an uphill battle to get the services they need and deserve.”

Source: Imperial Valley News

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