Is the Veterans Administration Ignoring Sexual Assault Trauma Claims?

A report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of the settlement for a Freedom of Information lawsuit confirmed what thouands of female veterans had been reporting for years:  the Veterans Administration has been systematically discriminating against claims relating to trauma resulting from sexual abuse. 

According to the report prepared by Yale Law School's Veterans Legal Services Clinic, just 30 percent of claims relating to sexual trauma had been approved compared to 53 percent of non-sexual PTSD claims in 2008 alone.  Though 57 percent of claims for sexual trauma were approved in 2012, over 73 percent of non-sexual claims were approved.  

Sexual trauma claims filed by men were even less likely to be approved than claims filed by women.   In 2011, just 37.1 percent of men's sexual trauma claims were approved while 74.5 percent of non-sexual PTSD claims were approved.

The report also found enormous differences between regional VA offices with St. Paul, MN, Detroit, and St. Louis showin a steep difference between sexual and non-sexual trauma claims while Nashville, TN and Los Angeles showing little difference after significant improvement in recent years.

The report findings come as no surprise for veterans and women's rights groups that have been reporting years of systematic discrimination against men and women making sexual assault trauma claims.    Sandra Park, senior attorney with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project,  stated that it was "inexcusable that the VA discriminates against survivors who have sacrificed so much for our country."    She added that she and her colleagues were hopeful that the report will encourage reform by forcing the VA to acknowledge the discrimination that many veterans face.

The percentage of disability claims approved rose sharply in 2011 when the VA relaxed the burden of evidence required for soldiers to prove their PTSD resulted from combat but the burden of proof for soldiers claiming trauma from sexual abuse is as rigid as ever.   According to Ann Bhagwati, a former captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), the process involved in filing a sexal trauma is "unnecessarily grueling."     She added that the process involved in filing a claim is "a second betrayal to most veterans"  who often report having their accusations dismissed by their commanding officers.

Despite the growing awareness of the problem of sexual victimization in the Armed Forces, the system remains, in Bhagwati's words, "broken through and through."  

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