July 20, 2012 — Advocates for survivors of sexual assault in the military testified during a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday about the difficulties of obtaining veterans' benefits for sexual trauma, Stars and Stripes reports.
The Department of Defense allows service members reporting a sexual assault to file either an unrestricted or restricted report. According to Stars and Stripes, the restricted reports are designed to protect victims' confidentiality, and although victims can receive treatment and counseling, no criminal charges or formal complaints are filed.
Although advocates have said the restricted report option is an important tool to encourage victims to come forward, it can cause problems for those who later file veterans' benefits claims for post-traumatic stress-disorder and other problems related to the assault. In such cases, victims may provide medical tests, transfer requests and other files as secondary proof. However, Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, said that documentation -- if there is any at all -- often is not enough to prove a link between stress disorders and the assault.
Bhagwati said the current process is "completely unrealistic" for traumatized veterans, noting that about two-thirds of all PTSD claims related to sexual assaults are refused (Shane, Stars and Stripes, 7/18). Bhagwati also said there is evidence of gender bias in the disability rating provided for veterans with PTSD. "Women were more likely to receive a 10% to 30% [disability] rating and men were more likely to receive a 70% to 100% disability rating," she said.
She noted that certain VA rules, such as requiring victims to undergo new exams to verify that they have PTSD, create additional issues, such as reversing diagnoses made by VA sexual trauma counselors. "It is not an issue of requiring more evidence; it needs requiring less evidence," she said.
Joy Ilem, deputy legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, echoed Bhagwati's concern and said complaints tend to be focused on the claims process. Veterans "express a feeling of being re-traumatized in their efforts to get help" from VA, she said.
Thomas Murphy, director of VA's compensation service, said, "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" (Maze, Military Times/USA Today, 7/19).
Murphy said officials have relaxed rules to permit more evidence to show a connection between PTSD and sexual assault, such as statement from friends or family, medical records and outside medical appointments (Stars and Stripes, 7/18).
Sen. Shaheen, Others Discuss Amendment To Offer Abortion Coverage to Servicewomen in Cases of Rape, Incest
An amendment that would permit abortion coverage for servicewomen in cases of rape or incest is about equality, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said, Politico reports. "It's a real injustice to the more than 200,000 women who are serving on active duty in our military," Shaheen said in an interview, adding, "They should have the same rights to affordable reproductive health services as the people they're protecting."
Retired Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock said, "The majority of women are afforded a choice after they've been sexually assaulted as to how they want to manage that." Pollock served as commander of the Army Medical Command, chief of the Army Nurse Corps and was acting surgeon general of the Army in 2007 (Munsil, Politico, 7/18).
Currently, the military covers abortion care for servicewomen only if their lives are in danger. Shaheen's amendment was introduced amid heightened concerns over the high rate of sexual assault in the military.
In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved the defense bill after a bipartisan, 16-10 vote to add the amendment, which would require the federal government to cover abortion care for service women in cases of rape and incest (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/30). The bill awaits debate on the Senate floor, and the amendment has support from both the Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking Republican John McCain (Ariz.).
The House version of the defense spending bill does not include the amendment, which could become a "sticking point" when a joint House-Senate conference committee reconciles the measures, Politico reports.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said he expects a fight over the issue, adding, "There are persons such as myself who do not want the government funding abortions. This would be getting a foot in the door of taxpayer money being used for abortions." He said he would prefer to increase efforts to prosecute those who commit rape and incest rather than expand abortion coverage.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January noted that the number of sexual assaults in the military could be as many as 19,000 annually. In 2011, 3,191 such assaults were reported (Politico, 7/18).
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Marya Torrez, associate editor & senior reproductive health policy counsel, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
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Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership