I recently had the honor of meeting a group of women who told me about their time serving our country in uniform. As patriots, their stories were of bravery, strength, and sacrifice. But as victims of sexual assault, their stories were of persecution, pain, and injustice.
They are not alone. Today a female member of the military is more likely to be raped than to be killed by enemy fire. She is twice as likely to become a victim of sexual assault as a service-member than as a civilian.
Thousands of women--and men--in the military report cases of sexual assault each year, but the Pentagon estimates only one in 10 ever report their assault. Those who do are routinely ostracized by other unit members and ignored by superiors. And when they try to get counseling to deal with the effects of their assault, they have to cut through reams of red tape to claim benefits.
Along with 12 other service members, including two men, the women I spoke with are filing a class-action lawsuit against a military system that did not do enough to prevent their assaults, to support them in reporting their rapes, or to bring them justice. After being repeatedly assaulted, these women watched their rapists get promoted in rank. Their complaints spawned retaliation. Superior officers told them to be good soldiers and "push through the pain." As they continued to serve with outstanding resolve and bravery, others made it a mission to make them feel like cowards and traitors.
Is it surprising that so few service members ever report being assaulted?
Despite this, the procedures for receiving benefits for treatment rely heavily on these reports. The burden of proof is on the victim. If they want support for counseling, they have to prove that their rape happened and that conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be directly linked to the assault. Yet even when a report has been made, the military may only keep it on file for a year. (I'm cosponsoring legislation to end that practice, since many victims seek help years after the fact.) I've even heard from one Maine veteran who found critical information blacked out when she finally obtained her file.
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am introducing legislation to make it easier for victims to get help. To receive benefits, veterans would only have to get a doctor's certification that their PTSD can be linked to sexual assault. I've also asked Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki to make this administrative policy change immediately.
We recently made this change for combat-linked PTSD. Before, veterans had to find documentation of a specific combat event that caused their stress, though those reports are nearly impossible to find years later, if they were made at all. They can now receive benefits if a doctor finds their PTSD consistent with the circumstances of a veteran's service.
We need to extend this rule to victims of sexual assault. We have a responsibility to take care of our wounded warriors, whether those wounds are to body or spirit, and whether they're at the hands of enemy or ally.
Sexual assault should not be a growing risk of service, but it is. Changing the military culture to prevent these assaults may take years, but changing the rules to better support our veterans doesn't have to.
If you are a veteran who needs assistance because of sexual assault, please contact my office at (207) 774-5019.