In 2017, U.S. Veterans filed 12,000 Veterans Benefits Administration claims seeking support for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to military sexual trauma (MST).
Nearly half of those claims were denied.
A recent investigation estimates that the VA failed to follow procedure when processing over 1,000 of the denied claims. This is a travesty – any Veterans who suffered from military-medical trauma should be eligible to receive the monetary compensation that they deserve.
Sexual trauma can be crippling, and it can affect both men and women. As the staggering number of claims filed for military sexual trauma indicates, sexual abuse and assault are also tragically common in the military.
If you have been the victim of abuse while serving in the military, you deserve to receive compensation from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. This compensation can help you support yourself and your loved ones as you seek treatment and work towards recovering from the long-term effects of your trauma.
How VA Handles Claims for PTSD with Military Sexual Trauma
If you have filed a claim for PTSD caused by military sexual trauma, you may get a rating decision that uses “boilerplate” (standardized pieces of text) language stating: “Service connection for acquired psychiatric disorder due to MST is denied since this condition neither occurred in nor was caused by service.” This decision can be frustrating and difficult to interpret. If you do receive a denial of a claim for PTSD related to MST that reads like this, your claim has not been handled responsibly.
This is not the legal analysis required by the Secretary of the VA.
This boilerplate serves as a quick answer, but it has been the cause of even more problems for MST survivors. It is dismissive, unsupportive, and callous, and can make Veterans feel responsible for the sexual abuse they suffered in the military. This response from the VA also reinforces the “blame the victim” mentality and implies to the Veteran that the VA does not recognize their claim as grounds for a personal, validating response.
For many Veterans, receiving a statement like this from the VA can feel extremely invalidating. For many sufferers of military sexual trauma, fear of not being believed or having their claims invalidated is one of the reasons that abuse and assault go unreported. These responses from the VA can have devastating long-term effects on a Veteran’s mental and emotional well-being.
How the VA Should Handle Military Sexual Trauma? (According To Requirements):
The VA is acutely aware that sexual trauma is not always officially reported, and therefore the standards for review are different from other reported disabilities. The required evidence standards are not always applicable. The VA recognizes that they must approach military sexual trauma claims with above-average levels of care and sensitivity, especially since the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse and assault goes unwitnessed – the people who perpetrate these crimes do not want to get caught.
In situations where there are no witnesses or other objective confirmation that an assault took place, the VA must instead look for “markers.” These markers are common indicators that a Veteran has been the victim of sexual abuse or assault.
There are commonalities to the behavior of Veterans after a life-altering assault, and there can be any number of the following signs:
- A request of a Veteran to transfer to another military duty assignment. Veterans often ask to be relocated after traumatic experiences, including after being assaulted. However, many Veterans who transfer after an assault will not tell anyone about what has occurred.
- Deterioration in work performance. One of the most common signs that a person is dealing with trauma is a noticeable decrease in focus, energy, and ability to stay on task while working. If a Veteran has been assaulted, they may display these behaviors but might be extremely hesitant to talk about what they have been through.
- Less respect for your purpose in the military. In many cases, a traumatic experience leaves a soldier feeling numb, depressed, apathetic, and purposeless. Many victims of sexual abuse or assault tragically end up taking their own lives, especially in cases where sexual trauma goes unreported and unaddressed.
- Substance abuse. Many soldiers who have endured sexual trauma may attempt to cope with drugs, alcohol, and other substances. Sufferers of sexual trauma are often especially vulnerable to developing addictions and dependencies.
- Episodes of depression, panic attacks, or anxiety without an identifiable cause. Unaddressed sexual trauma can cause a wide array of emotional and psychological issues. Once a soldier begins seeking treatment for MST, these symptoms often improve significantly. However, it can take a long time for the effects of sexual trauma to go away completely.
- Rape crisis center reports. Many victims of MST will reach out for help outside of the military in an effort to maintain anonymity. As previously mentioned, the fear of not being believed by the VA or fellow soldiers is often one of the primary reasons why military sexual trauma goes unaddressed.
- Tests for sexually transmitted diseases. If these tests show up on a Veteran’s military records, they may implicitly indicate that the Veteran has endured some form of sexual trauma.
- Unexplained economic or social behavioral changes. A traumatic sexual experience can leave a person’s behavior significantly altered. Trauma can lead to poor impulse control, problems in relationships, and a wide range of other noticeable behavioral issues.
- Relationship problems such as divorce, or inability to maintain a normal sexual relationship. If a Veteran is dealing with unaddressed, untreated sexual trauma, their relationships and sexual life are likely to suffer. Traumatic sexual experiences can leave a Veteran with intense memories that can easily be triggered by circumstances within their romantic relationships. If a Veteran feels triggered by their relationship, they may opt to get a divorce in an effort to avoid reminders of their trauma.
- Sexual dysfunction. Since sexual trauma can have devastating long-term effects on a Veteran’s relationships, it is easy to see how sexual performance issues could stem from MST. For many Veterans, sexual intercourse becomes an intensely triggering experience, which can make it difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with a partner or spouse.
- Statements from family members or friends. If a Veteran has confided in a trusted friend or family member about their abuse, statements from these confidants can indicate to the VA that the Veteran suffered from military sexual trauma.
The Effects Of Military Sexual Trauma
You do not have to be service-connected for any other injury to receive treatment for MST through the VA. Treatment for MST is especially important, as the effects on a survivor can lead to severe mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse (generally as self-medication against anxiety and depression), and suicide.
Additionally, the Veteran survivor is likely to isolate themselves. They may have extreme “triggers” that remind them of the crime. They may be unable to use a public restroom, maintain a personal relationship, or hold down a job.
Military sexual trauma impacts female Veterans and male Veterans alike.
Military Sexual Trauma For Males
The Pentagon and other sources estimate that 81% of male MST survivors do not report the crime. Male MST survivors are also four times more likely to have attempted suicide than Veterans with PTSD who are not MST survivors, even when controlled for demographics and other psychological factors. Male survivors are more likely to have major problems with work, adjustment to civilian life, poor family relationships, and intimate partner relationships. These are all good reasons to seek treatment, whether the MST was recent or not.
Why Male MST Survivors Don’t Report the Crime
Some survivors fear facing charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for the circumstances surrounding the assault (drinking while underaged, etc.). Others are worried about possible repercussions, or think that retaliation from other service members will be worse than what they have already suffered. All of these factors can dissuade a Veteran from reporting the sexual trauma. However, this can have severe consequences. The unreported trauma can drive some survivors to substance abuse or suicide.
The Importance of Treatment and VA compensation
Being a survivor of MST is nothing to be ashamed of.
When you seek treatment, it is a brave, healthy choice. You are helping to avoid the potentially dark aftermath of the MST attack. This trauma can affect all areas of your life. Seeking treatment will also leave a valuable paper trail full of evidence that the VA cannot ignore.
Contact a Military Sexual Trauma Lawyer
When you file a claim with the VA, you are taking action against the injustice. You deserve compensation, with the additional benefit of knowing that you are not only believed, but you are also getting redress for your injuries. Veterans must hold the VA accountable for MST treatment. This will also force the VA to look into these issues and work to combat these problems in the military.