Good afternoon. I would like to thank everyone for attending today's hearing focused on examining the VA disability compensation process as it pertains to military sexual trauma or MST.
I am happy to join DAMA Subcommittee Chairman Runyan and my colleagues in holding this hearing.
I am also pleased that two of the leading voices in Congress on this issue, Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, and Representative Jackie Speier of California are accompanying the Subcommittee Members on the dais today. I also welcome and thank Ms. Pingree's constituent, Ruth Moore, accompanied by her husband, for testifying about her MST experience with VA.
Servicemembers who experience military sexual trauma and are brave enough to speak out about their experiences often do so at great risk to their careers and reputation.
The purpose of this hearing today is to evaluate ways in which the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) can better address the needs of veterans affected by MST and identify ways to prevent these horrible assaults, treat and properly compensate the victims.
MST refers to sexual harassment and sexual assault that occurs in military settings. MST often occurs in a setting where the victim lives and works, which means that the victims must continue to live and work closely with their perpetrators.
Many MST victims state that when they do report an incident, their story is dismissed or they are encouraged to keep silent because of the need to preserve organizational cohesion.
This is unfair to the victims. We must put protections in place to ensure a safe haven exists for the women and men who experience military sexual trauma.
Unfortunately, the consequences of MST are a pervasive problem within the Veteran community. According to the Institute of Medicine, prevalence rates of MST range from 20-43%. Many veterans who are victims of MST express frustration with the VA's disability claims process, especially in trying to prove to that the assault ever happened.
For many women and men, when their disability claims for post traumatic stress related to MST are denied.
However, I am pleased that in July 2010, in response to action taken by this committee, the VA relaxed its stressor evidentiary standards for post traumatic stress, which also includes MST.
While this represented a step in the right direction, there are still hurdles that women and men face in receiving the benefits they deserve.
As SWAN points out in its testimony, there are still disparities in compensation and confusion within VBA on when service-connection compensation for MST is warranted.
Training at VA has improved slightly, but VBA claims decisions are still inconsistent and more must be done.
As we build a VA for the 21st century, VA and DoD need to ensure that the proper prevention, counseling, treatment and benefits are available for MST victims.
Veterans should be able to have access to VA personnel who are qualified to advise on the often-sensitive MST related issues. These veterans need to be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
I look forward to hearing from the esteemed panels of witnesses.
Thank you, I now yield back.