by Michelle Chen
July 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
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
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.