Washington, D.C.-Two groups that advocate for veterans filed a lawsuit last week, alleging that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs discriminates against victims of sexual harassment and abuse when seeking disability benefits.
The lawsuit was filed by Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) who allege that VA policies are discriminatory towards male and female victims of military sexual harassment suffering from PTSD.
When service members suffer from combat or fear-related PTSD, they don’t have to provide evidence linking their condition to military service when applying for disability benefits. But victims of military members who are sexually harassed and suffer from PTSD must provide evidence that the condition is connected to their military service.
“The VA knows the current process makes veterans who’ve been harmed by military sexual harassment and assault jump through more hoops than other PTSD claimants,” said Anu Bhagwati, SWAN executive director and a former Marine Corps captain.
The suit cites a report released last fall from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School which showed the 53 percent of PTSD claims not related to sexual harassment were approved in 2008. In contrast, only 30 percent of sexual harassment-related disability claims were approved the same year. Approval rates for sexual assault victims varied from region to region.
The suit is asking the VA to change the evidentiary rules for sexual assault victims to conform to the less stringent rules governing combat trauma, Prisoner of War Status and fear of hostile military or terrorist activity. Because sexual harassment and assault pit one person’s word against another, it can be very hard for victims to provide the evidence necessary. This causes many people to endure the sexual abuse rather than report it.
“The result of this discrimination is that survivors of military sexual harassment and assault are denied life-saving benefits and critical income to support themselves and their families,” Bhagwati said, according to the Hartford Courant.
The VA wouldn’t respond specifically to the lawsuit, but said they relaxed the rules for military sexual assault victims in 2002, allowing victims to provide statements from friends and family to provide evidence of PTSD instead relying solely on the victim’s military record. And in 2011, the VA developed new training and assigned Women Veterans Coordinators to each regional office to give assistance to men and women with sexual trauma-related PTSD claims, according to Stars And Stripes.
Advocates say these measures are not enough and want the policies to change. But Bhagwati believes they have been reluctant to change the evidentiary rules because the VA doesn’t want to see an increase in claims.
A spokesman from the VA pointed out approvals for sexual assault-related PTSD benefits were within 6 percent of other PTSD claims in 2013.
It’s very hard for victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forward whether they experience the abuse in a civilian workplace or in the military. In a private workplace, sexual harassment victims can seek compensation for their emotional distress and lost wages when they have the representation of a sexual harassment attorney.