The Department of Veterans Affairs is opposing a new bill that would expand access to disability benefits for survivors of military sexual trauma.
Department officials characterized the legislation at a congressional hearing Thursday as too broad, saying it would require the VA to approve claims based on a veteran’s word alone without any corroborating evidence.
But after a recent inspector general report found the VA may have wrongly refused benefits to thousands of military sexual assault victims in recent years, supporters of the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2019 say changes are necessary to keep the department from retraumatizing victims who deserve to be compensated for what they went through — even if there’s no paper trail.
“It is just unthinkable that in this day, we ask people to serve in the military, they have these horrendous experiences … but then people present themselves for claims — and many of them going back an incredibly long period of time — and then hit these brick walls,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who introduced the legislation.
Among other things, the bill would lessen the burden of proof for military sexual assault survivors applying for disability benefits, requiring the VA to resolve every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran, as is already standard VA practice for claims of combat-related PTSD.
It would also put into law that veterans can submit evidence outside of their official Department of Defense records, including police records, statements from family members and evidence of change in behavior following the traumatic event.
Thousands of veterans could be affected by these changes.
Approximately 6 percent of female service members and 0.7 percent of male service members were victims of sexual assault in 2018, according to a Defense Department report released last month. The DoD estimates more than 20,000 service members had experienced some kind of assault last year, up from around 15,000 in 2016.
The VA receives an average of 18,000 claims related to military sexual trauma a year, and officials estimate this could jump to 30,000 or more by opening up service-connected disability benefits to mental health disorders other than PTSD.
Beth Murphy, executive director of compensation service at the VA, said the department has already expanded the type of evidence it considers as proof of military sexual trauma-related disorders, but to compare combat and military sexual trauma is going too far.
“The concern for liberalizing almost to a combat level is that the tenants of combat are such that it’s not documenting and record keeping that is going on at that time. It’s a serious situation with people ducking and people trying just to execute the mission,” she said — to which Pingree responded that it’s often the same for victims of sexual abuse.
“Our concern is mainly that we would defaulting to the fact that this happened without an appropriate level of corroboration that we have in the current way we process claims,” Murphy said.
Expert witnesses at the hearing testified that it’s unusual for people to make up accusations of sexual assault.
“I don’t think this is an experience people want to share readily, let alone make up,” said Elizabeth Tarloski, an adjunct professor at William and Mary Law School who works in the school’s veterans’ benefits clinic. “I am concerned that differing standards kind of puts our PTSD survivors who are veterans in two different categories. We should believe those who are in combat who can’t document what happened, but we need additional evidence from those who suffer from (military sexual trauma), and to me that’s troubling.”
Less controversial sections of the bill would expand the types of mental health conditions eligible for service-connected disability benefits beyond PTSD, including depression and anxiety, if military sexual trauma is found to be the originating cause — a provision the VA supports — and allow victims of online harassment, stalking or other forms of “technological abuse” to receive VA counseling and treatment for military sexual trauma.
VA officials said they are taking steps to fix past mistakes, which led to the VA Inspector General’s report that the department mishandled at least 1,300 cases during a six-month stretch in 2017 due to procedural and paperwork mistakes.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.