Federal Circuit Weighs in On Military Sexual Trauma Cases

In recent years, there has been a growing concern over sexual assault in the military and also how the military handles reports of sexual assault. Alarming statistics from the Department of Defense indicate that military sexual assault is a far too common occurrence.

Many survivors of military sexual assault continue to suffer from PTSD long after they are separated from service. The symptoms of PTSD can be devastating, ranging from sleeping problems and irritability, to job loss and relationship problems, to suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for survivors of military sexual assaults to win cases for VA benefits due to PTSD from military sexual trauma. This is because, in many instances, the in-service assault went unreported, or the victim did not go to the hospital after the sexual assault occurred so there is a lack of records indicating that the assault happened.

VA has already recognized that reporting problems are inherent in sexual assault cases, and VA will recognize alternative signs that an assault occurred (like changes in performance or behavior) as indicators that the assault occurred. And now there is a new case from the Federal Circuit that holds that VA cannot use the absence of records of an assault as evidence to deny a veteran’s claim for PTSD.

In reaching its decision, the Federal Circuit recognized that, in the majority of cases, assaults aren’t reported to the authorities and that military personnel may face unique incentives not to report the assault, including fear of retaliation or reprisals. The Federal Circuit recognized that fewer than 15% of sexual assault cases are reported. In other words, the Federal Circuit recognized that, in a lot of cases, it shouldn’t be expected that a service member would report the crime. There are a lot of reasons that victims do not report sexual assaults. The Federal Circuit also held that, because these crimes are underreported, VA is not permitted to use the service member’s failure to report a sexual assault to authorities as evidence against a claim for VA benefits for PTSD.

Do You Qualify for VA Benefits from Military Sexual Trauma?

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