With President Obama saying that actions -- not words -- are needed to combat sexual assault in the military, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) are telling the President that immediate steps are available to better support survivors of sexual assault.
Pingree and Tester want the President to direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to help sexual assault survivors experiencing a mental health condition get the benefits they need by making it easier for them to prove their condition is the result of an assault they suffered while in the military.
The VA took similar action to relax evidentiary standards for combat veterans suffering from PTSD in 2010. Pingree and Tester say the President should immediately apply the same standard to survivors of sexual assault.
"You have the ability to provide justice for thousands of survivors of service-related sexual trauma by calling for more fairness in the VA disability claims process," Pingree and Tester told the President in a letter. "Legislation is not necessary to keep faith with these veterans. The VA made it easier for combat veterans suffering from PTSD to get the disability benefits they need. It is past time the VA make a similar change for MST survivors. And you can direct them to do so."
More than 85 percent of all military sexual assaults go unreported, which means veterans have a hard time meeting the burden of proof when applying for benefits. According to the Defense Department, while about 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in 2012, survivors reported fewer than 3,000 attacks.
If the President does not take action, Pingree and Tester will continue to push their Ruth Moore Act that requires the VA to reduce the burden of proof for assault survivors seeking benefits. The bill is named for Ruth Moore, a veteran from Maine who was raped twice after enlisting in the Navy at age 18. Moore reported the attacks, but the attacker was never charged or disciplined.
Recent high-profile reports of increased numbers of sexual assaults in the military, along with cases involving military officers, have brought renewed focus to the issue of military sexual assault.
Full text of letter below.
Dear Mr. President:
We commend your willingness to work with Congress to address the prevalence of sexual assault in the military. However, given the increasing rate of these assaults and the dramatic implications they are having on our service members, veterans, and their families, we strongly urge you to take further action to confront this crisis. In particular, you have the ability to provide justice for thousands of survivors of service-related sexual trauma by calling for more fairness in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability claims process, and increasing their ability to access the benefits they desperately need.
Recent Pentagon data estimates that the reported number of sexual assaults in the military has increased 35 percent over the past two years. Tragically, these assaults have lasting consequences for survivors, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and various physical disabilities. Moreover, female service members who are sexually assaulted are more likely to develop PTSD than their male counterparts who have experienced combat. Establishing proof of a military sexual assault, however, is very difficult in the current system as the vast majority of these assaults go unreported--as many as 85 percent according to some reports. Subsequently, veterans have a hard time meeting the burden of proof when applying for VA benefits for disabilities linked to their military sexual trauma (MST).
We have introduced bipartisanlegislation, the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, that brings fairness to the VA claims process for victims of service-related trauma by relaxing the evidentiary standards for MST survivors. While we acknowledge the VA's recent efforts to improve the adjudication of claims related to MST, further action is necessary. The current standards are difficult, if not impossible, to meet, and they do an injustice to veterans who have honorably served their nation yet suffered ahorrific trauma. Our legislation continues to garner support in Congress and has been endorsed by every major veterans' service organization. Legislation, however, is not necessary to keep faith with these veterans. In 2010, the VA relaxed evidentiary standards to make it easier for combat veterans suffering from PTSD to get the disability benefits they need. It is past time the VA make a similar regulatory change for MST survivors. And you can direct them to do so.
Combating sexual assault in the military will require a multi-pronged approach and no single law or policy will do this--a culture change is needed. But as we work together to prevent these atrocities from happening, we cannot forget the thousands of survivors who have summoned the courage and turned to their government for help. We need to act on their behalf.
Jon Tester Chellie Pingree
U.S. Senator U.S. Representative