Report Finds That Military Sexual Trauma Cases Are Inconsistently Handled

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) has been a hot-button issue of late.  There was a strong push in Congress to adopt the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA).  Senator Kristen Gillibrand (NY-D) is hoping to pass a law so that when someone in the military is sexually assaulted, the process is removed from the chain of command and impartial military prosecutors are instead to look into the matter.  Unfortunately, though it garnered substantial support, the effort has stalled for the time being.  The hit Netflix drama House of Cards tackled the issue of military rape in its second season, as one of the main characters used her position as the Vice-President’s wife to champion a similar bill. However, despite all the media attention, the VA is struggling to consistently handle how it processes compensation claims that are based on conditions caused by MST.

VA Disability Claims Based on Sexual Trauma

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has found that, despite years of emphasis, the way that claims are handled are grossly inconsistent across the country.  One regional office approved 88 percent of claims, while another approved just 14 percent.  This does not necessarily mean that claims are being improperly handled, either for or against the veteran.

According the VA statistics from 2012, one in five female veterans and one in 100 male veterans reported some type of sexual abuse while in the military.  Meanwhile, from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2013, more than 29,000 claims for disabilities related to MST were filed.  The overwhelming majority of those claimed disabilities were PTSD.  MST is the triggering event or stressor and not a diagnosed condition that in and of itself is compensable.

The GAO report further found that individual adjudicators would sometimes differ in how they would process the claims and interpret what was required to substantiate the claim.  It was recommended that the VA expand training for adjudicators, perform more comprehensive reviews of sexual trauma cases to identify problem areas and increase outreach efforts to veterans with previously-denied MST claims.  The VA has acknowledged and agreed with the report, stating that they are already working on enhancing the training for MST-related claims.  The hope is that come August, those refresher courses will be available to its employees.

The overall acceptance rate of PTSD claims related to MST has doubled over five years, from 28 percent in 2008 to 50 percent in 2013.  I have found some success with my clients who have PTSD claims based on MST.  As the evidentiary standards have changed, there are other avenues to explore to try to prove the case.  The emphasis of the MJIA, as well as the bill on House of Cards, is that the chain of command typically buries any allegation of sexual misconduct.  As a result there usually is no record of the victim’s complaints, and thus no record that anything took place. Since the VA will only pay a claim if there is a link to service, you have to turn to other evidence to help support the claim.  This is where unrepresented veterans may struggle.  All is not lost at this point, though this is where some of the adjudicator inconsistency comes into play.  While one may attribute a veteran’s weekend AWOL stint as being defiant, another may attribute the same to being a way to temporarily cope with something that happened, which very well may have been MST.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of MST, and you are suffering from conditions you believe stem from it, contact an experienced advocate at Veterans Help Group to see what other avenues need to be explored to help substantiate your claim.

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