Military Sexual Assault Claims: How Are They Really Being Handled?

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In spite of vowing that they will do better, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to struggle with how to process military sexual assault claims. In fact, a 2018 VA Inspector General’s report found that the VA had improperly processed about 49 percent of its denied claims for military sexual trauma. Since then, that number has jumped to 57 percent.

If you are seeking benefits for military sexual trauma (MST) or your MST claim has been denied, our experienced attorneys can provide services aimed at helping you to obtain the benefits and back pay that you deserve.

Why Military Sexual Assault Claims Are Difficult to Process

An estimated two-thirds of sexual assaults taking place in the military go unreported. Because of this, evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual trauma must be present at the time the claim is made in order for claimants to obtain disability benefits for sexual assault-related PTSD. This evidence is difficult to produce or validate, particularly if the victim never reported the assault and many years have passed since it occurred. In response to the 2018 report from the Inspector General, which revealed that the failure to process sexual assault claims properly could have resulted in veterans being denied VA benefits that they were entitled to receive, some of the measures that were put in place include:

  • Implementing a formal procedure to correct all the processing errors that were identified in the report
  • Developing a plan to address deficiencies in the claim process for military sexual trauma
  • Developing a written plan to increase communication, oversight, and accountability when processing sexual assault claims

In spite of these changes, interviews with 136 of the VA’s military sexual trauma coordinators reveal that 60 percent do not feel that they have the administrative support they need to perform their duties, and 30 percent said more funding is needed for outreach and education.

Evidence Needed for a Disability Claim Based on Military Sexual Trauma

According to the VA, in order to obtain benefits based on military sexual trauma, the claimant must be able to prove:

  • The sexual assault occurred while serving in the military
  • The claimant is currently suffering from a physical or mental health condition
  • There is a link between the current physical or mental health condition and the sexual assault that occurred during military service

The types of evidence that the VA will use to analyze the claim includes DoD sexual assault or harassment forms and investigative reports completed during military service. Additionally, indirect evidence of the connection between the assault and current post-traumatic stress disorder or other ailments can be considered, such as:

  • Changes in work performance that were noted after the sexual assault occurred
  • Episodes of depression or anxiety that do not have a clear cause
  • Journals or personal diaries
  • Records from official sources, such as civilian physicians or hospitals, civilian law enforcement, or rape crisis centers
  • Requests for transfer to another duty assignment
  • Proof of pregnancy, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases, or substance abuse

One Positive Indicator of Change

While this year’s report from the Office of the VA Inspector General noted an increase in the number of military sexual assault claim denials that were improperly processed, the number of claimants being approved for benefits for PTSD related to military sexual assault increased from 57 percent of claims made in 2017 to 72 percent of claims made in fiscal year 2021, which began in October 2020.

More Changes on the Way?

In late October, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman, John Tester (D-Mont.) and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski reintroduced bipartisan legislation aimed at improving military sexual trauma survivors’ access to benefits and health care. The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2021 will modify the way sexual assault survivors must prove trauma and also extends military sexual trauma care and counseling to National Guard and Reserve members. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced a companion bill to the House of Representatives. The legislation was previously introduced by Tester, Murkowski, and Pingree in 2017 and 2019.

We Can Help With Your MST Claim or Appeal

In spite of the efforts to improve the process, many survivors of military sexual trauma are still being wrongfully denied the benefits they deserve. In fact, the VA is urging those who filed an MST claim before 2018 and were denied to reapply so that their claim can be evaluated by staff specifically trained to process these claims. Our experienced VA benefits attorneys can provide services to assist you with your claim, including ensuring that you have the evidence needed for the VA to process the claim. For your free case evaluation, contact us today. Our services will cost you nothing unless we are successful in assisting you with obtaining your benefits.

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