Sexual Assault Left Out of Military’s PTSD Reform

New regulations for reviewing veterans' PTSD claims offer little comfort for military women who have survived sexual trauma.

By Michelle Chen Jul 14, 2010

On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced reforms to the rules for claiming veterans’ benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. The White House says the move will ease the burden of proof that veterans face when trying to prove the mental wounds of war. But the new regulations are silent on the suffering of women who have experienced sexual trauma in the military. The new rules essentially give vets a greater benefit of the doubt by simplifying the process for proving a PTSD claim, as long as a VA-approved psychologist or psychiatrist affirms that it is "consistent with the places, types, and circumstances of the Veteran’s service." But the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy group for current and former military women, has warned that the new criteria do not apply equally to the process of proving sexual assault related to military service. Despite study after study showing that military sexual trauma (MST) is both widespread and underreported in all branches of the military, the VA has been accused of ignoring many cases of sexual harassment, rape and other sexual crimes that fall outside the conventional categories of combat injuries. The new PTSD regulations thus offer little comfort to the traumatized victims of sexual abuse, who already struggle with stigma, shame and fear. Anuradha K. Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of SWAN, recently testified before Congress:

Filing for disability compensation for MST is universally considered a traumatic, agonizing, and cruel experience. Many survivors describe the process of re-writing one’s personal narrative for a VA claim as just as traumatic as the original rape or harassment. VBA claims officers nationwide have proven themselves entirely inept when dealing with MST claims. Claims are routinely rejected, even with sufficient evidence of a stressor and a corroborating diagnosis from a VA health provider. Many survivors’ claims are rejected because of VBA’s lack of knowledge about sexual violence… Current VBA policy is forcing women and men with insufficient evidence of their assault and harassment to suffer in silence and shame, to numb their pain through use of substances, and to take or attempt to take their own lives.

Going forward, the service women who will be affected by the new VA policy are disproportionately women of color. As Colorlines reported back in 2008, women of color in the military may struggle against racial barriers within their own ranks; when sexual assault or abuse enters the picture, inequalities in access to VA services could be psychologically crippling. Bhagwati argued in a New York Times roundtable last week, "The V.A.’s double standard when it comes to survivors of sexual trauma is shameful. We’ve got nothing to celebrate until all sources of P.T.S.D. are considered equal." The debate will likely continue as Congress weighs the COMBAT PTSD Act, which would further ease the claims process by enabling vets to rely on evidence provided by private mental health workers rather than just VA-approved clinicians, who may be biased in their diagnosis, or inaccessible to veterans living in underserved communities. For now, it looks like survivors of military sexual trauma will continue to face discrimination when they come forward, whether to seek justice or just to receive basic mental health care. Their silent struggle for equity shows that for all the talk about soldiers being equal when they wear the uniform, race and gender still color the military experience in unspoken ways. Photo: SWAN