Is Getting Disability Benefits Too Difficult for Military Sexual Assault Victims?

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — The criteria to obtain VA disability benefits for sexual assault is “completely unrealistic” for most survivors to meet, advocates told a congressional committee at a recent hearing.

“Veterans who file a PTSD claim based on their military sexual trauma have only a 1 in 3 chance of getting their claim approved,” Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former member of the military, told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Military sexual assaults have been in the spotlight in recent months. For example, only days after the hearing, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, a Lackland Air Force Base, TX, instructor, was convicted on 28 counts that included rape and sexual assault. Walker was among 12 Lackland instructors under investigation for sexual misconduct.

In April, DoD announced there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault involving military members as either victims or subjects in FY 2011, but earlier this year Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the estimate is likely closer to 19,000 such cases.

Bhagwati and other advocates argue that it is difficult for sexual assault victims to provide the necessary documentation for the claims process. Many victims may not have sought help after the assault and, therefore, have no documentation such as police reports and medical reports. While alternative sources can be used to show that the sexual assault occurred, advocates say they are not always accepted in the claims process.

“During FY 2008, 2009 and 2010, only 32.3% of MST-based PTSD claims were approved by VBA compared to an approval rate of 54.2% of all other PTSD claims during that time,” Bhagwati told the committee.

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network

Claims Adjudication

In 2010, the VA changed regulations on the adjudication of PTSD claims related to combat because of the lack of records in the combat zone. Similar changes were not made for MST claims because it was determined there already are more liberal evidentiary standards for these cases.

Thomas Murphy, director of VBA’s Compensation Service, defended the current PTSD regulations for MST-related claims to the subcommittee and said they provide, “multiple means to establish an occurrence.” What VA has done, however, is initiate “additional training efforts and specialized handling procedures” for claims personnel to ensure these claims are handled appropriately.

One of the additional training efforts is the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) “Challenge Training Program” for newly hired claims processors, which includes a training module on MST. The VBA also announced in July that it is deploying a new model for processing compensation benefits claims. As part of this, claims are routed to one of three segmented lanes, one of which is a special operations lane that will handle claims such as PTSD associated with MST.

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