Good afternoon. Welcome to our hearing, "Invisible Wounds: Examining the Disability Benefits Compensation Process for Victims of Military Sexual Trauma."
First, I ask unanimous consent to welcome a number of our honorable colleagues who have asked to be allowed to participate as guest members of the Subcommittee today.
Hearing no objection, so ordered.
As a nation, we call on our armed service members to sacrifice bravely on our behalf. They courageously put their lives at risk and face deadly enemies on the battlefield.
When we think of these enemies, we think of those who oppose our freedom or are American way of life. We certainly do not think of soldiers needing to defend themselves from their fellow service members. However, many of our service members are required to do just that.
Women are the fastest growing population among veterans, making up 8% of the armed forces. However, the Department of Defense estimates that one in four women who join the armed services will be raped or assaulted, but that only about 10% of such incidents are ever reported.
Even more alarming is that of those few who did report incidents of military sexual trauma, over 75% stated that they would not make the same decision about reporting the incident again, due to the consequences it had on their military career.
Despite the fact that many of these incidents go unreported, VA currently estimates that over half a million veterans have experienced military sexual trauma. This includes 17% of veterans from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although this is not the Committee's jurisdiction, there must be zero-tolerance for this behavior in the military, and VA must recognize immediately the trauma inflicted on these men and women.
Accordingly, the focus of today's hearing is how to assist these veterans with obtaining VA benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This is often a difficult task given the sensitive nature of these claims and the lack of evidence of documenting such incidents at the time that they occurred.
Although VA has made great progress in adjudicating military sexual trauma claims by providing relaxed evidentiary standards and re-training employees on this issue, SWAN, one of the organizations testifying today, estimates that less than one-third of military sexual trauma PTSD claims are approved by VA, even though 53% of PTSD claims are granted overall.
Although military sexual trauma is not a new issue, it is a serious matter on which more light has been shed in recent years.
As more and more of our brave service members find the inner strength to overcome military cultural challenges, and come forward to seek justice, help and healing, the more the members of this Committee, DoD, and VA can understand the best means of assisting victims of military sexual trauma with obtaining the VA benefits that they need.
One such veteran will be testifying before us today, and I would like to personally thank Ms. Ruth Moore for coming to Washington and sharing her story with us today.
Victims of military sexual trauma like Ms. Moore carry scars in their hearts for the rest of their lives as a result of what they have endured. Such veterans are indeed deserving of VA benefits to help them enjoy the American way of life that their service has helped to secure.
As the Department of Defense continues to address issues arising from the cultural resistance to reporting such abuse, the VA must continue to work on ensuring that the proper benefits, so needed by these victims, are easily obtainable.
So, I will reiterate - the focus of our hearing today is precisely that--what benefits does VA provide for victims of military sexual trauma, how are these claims adjudicated, and how can this process be improved?
We welcome several witnesses to testify before us today, ranging from representatives of veterans service organizations, to experts on the effects and treatments of military sexual trauma, to officials from VA and the Department of Defense.
I appreciate all of you taking the time to speak with us today about this issue of such importance to so many members of our American community.
Because we have many distinguished guests today, I would like to reiterate my request that our witnesses abide by the decorum and rules of this hearing by summarizing your statements to five minutes or less during oral testimony. Doing so will ensure that the Committee has the opportunity to hear from everyone.
I also remind all present that without any objection, your written testimony will be made part of the hearing record.
I now call on the distinguished Ranking Member for his opening statement.