Wilkie’s Characterization of ‘Unsubstantiated’ Challenged by VA IG
WASHINGTON — Following an investigation by the VA Office of the Inspector General, federal authorities have decided not to file any charges based on a reported assault at the DC VAMC this past fall.
A staff member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee reported she was assaulted at the VA facility in September. The conflicting reactions of the VA secretary and members of the committee appeared to reignite tensions between the two and might serve as an object lesson demonstrating the difficulties VA has in making their spaces safe for women veterans.
Andrea Goldstein, a Navy veteran and senior policy adviser to Congress’ Women Veterans Task Force, said she was assaulted on Sept. 20 in the front atrium of the DC VAMC. In an interview with The New York Times, she said that the assailant slammed his lower body into hers and said, “You look like you could use a good time.”
The following week, House VA Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA) appeared outside the hospital calling for VA to adopt stronger policies to end sexual harassment at its facilities. The treatment of women veterans at VA hospitals was the subject of multiple congressional hearings last year. Research released by VA last spring shows that 1 in 4 women veterans has experienced harassment while visiting its medical facilities.
Last month, the OIG completed its investigation into this specific incident and determined there was not enough evidence to press charges.
The following day, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter to Takano responding to the committee’s call for stronger sexual harassment policies. He wrote in the letter, “We believe that VA is a safe place for all veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”
Wilkie’s characterization of Goldstein’s report as “unsubstantiated” received a swift and firm repudiation from the IG.
“Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the department that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” VA Inspector General Mark Missal wrote to Wilkie only hours after the letter was sent to Takano. “I specifically told them that the investigation had been closed without charges and that no other characterization could or should be made regarding the outcome of the investigation. Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated.”
Missal went so far as to characterize the tone of Wilkie’s letter as harmful to women veterans who might be looking to come forward about sexual assault at VA facilities.
“Despite the apparent implication of your letter, no one should be discouraged from reporting an alleged crime to the OIG,” he wrote.
Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA), chair of the House VA Committee’s Subcommittee on Health and leader of the Women Veteran’s Task Force, said that Wilkie’s statement puts into stark relief how much work VA has to do in changing its culture. Brownley said it could be used as a “teachable moment to be a leader in stopping sexual assault at VA facilities, by first and foremost making sure that no one is shamed or shunned for coming forward.”
“Secretary Wilkie’s implication that coming forward to report sexual assault actually hurts women is a shockingly tone-deaf response, and a bright line that succinctly illustrates the cultural problem that pervades VA,” she added in a statement. “Women veterans are already hesitant to come forward and report sexual harassment and sexual assault because they fear being dismissed and retaliated against.”
For Goldstein’s report not to result in any charges being filed puts her in the majority of women who come forward about sexual assault. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, less than a quarter of sexual assaults are reported. Of those about 1 in 5 lead to arrest, and only 1 in 10 of those result in prison time for the offender.
As for the DC VAMC specifically, Goldstein maintained her experience is likely not isolated. When she and Takano appeared on a local radio show to talk about veteran sexual assault, She talked about how the crowded front atrium of the facility acts as a gauntlet for women visiting the facility.
“If you go through the rest of the facility, away from the women’s clinic there are a lot of chokepoints,” Goldstein explained. “It sometimes feels like you’re running the gauntlet being stared at. I’ve spoken to—well before this incident happened—a lot of women veterans who’ve been voicing their concerns about issues in this facility for years about being catcalled, heckled, wolf whistled.”
Several local women veterans called into the show, describing similar experiences at the hospital. One caller who identified herself as an Air Force veteran, said she had received more harassment at the DC VAMC than she had in her 27 years of active duty. The harassment, she said, has a direct impact on women’s care.
“There are a lot of groups focused on trauma, but the majority of those groups are mixed gender groups,” she explained. “When myself and other female veterans have addressed the need for women-only groups, the responses that I’ve gotten have always been there are not a lot of women taken advantage of the groups. [But] the reason why a lot of women don’t take advantage of the groups is because it’s so difficult. It is really traumatic to actually come down to the VA and get an appointment, because you are harassed so bad.”