Sexual assault and harassment are serious problems in the United States armed forces. Thousands of service members each year are estimated to have experienced some form of military sexual trauma (MST), including rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.
Less well known is the second battle that many veterans who survive sexual violence must fight with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) when they return to civilian life.
“Battle for Benefits: VA Discrimination Against Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma,” a report released by Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project (ACLU), and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT), with assistance by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, reveals that the process of obtaining VA disability benefits for the enduring mental health effects of military sexual trauma (MST) is an unfair fight in which veterans are often unsuccessful. Veterans who survive in-service sexual trauma face discrimination in seeking compensation.
The report’s key findings include:
- VA granted disability benefit claims for PTSD related to MST at a significantly lower rate than claims for PTSD unrelated to MST every year from 2008 to 2012. The grant rate for MST-related PTSD claims has lagged behind the grant rate for other PTSD claims by between 16.5 and 29.6 percentage points every year.
- For claims for disability benefits based on two other mental health disorders – major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified – there is minimal disparity between the rates at which VA granted MST-related claims and claims unrelated to MST.
- Because female veterans’ PTSD claims are more often based on MST-related PTSD than male veterans’ PTSD claims, female veterans overall are disparately impacted by the lower grant rates for MST-related PTSD. For every year between 2008 and 2011, a gap of nearly ten percentage points separated the overall grant rate for PTSD claims brought by women and those brought by men.
- Among those who file MST-related PTSD claims, male veterans face particularly low grant rates when compared to female veterans who file MST-related PTSD claims.
- Treatment of MST-related PTSD claims varies widely from one VA regional office (VARO) to another. The VAROs that discriminated most egregiously in 2012 include those in St. Paul, MN; Detroit, MI; and St. Louis, MO.
The report’s key recommendations include:
- Reforming VA regulations on disability claims based on PTSD related to in-service assault;
- Improving training and oversight of VA offices with poor records in granting MST claims; and
- Enhancing VA transparency and record keeping related to MST-based disability claims.
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