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Senator: Time to help sexual assault victims

Feb. 13, 2013 - 04:04PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 13, 2013 - 04:04PM  |  
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Veterans who were victims of sexual assault while in the military should get support "without having to jump through additional hoops," says the Senate sponsor of a bill designed to make it easier to get treatment and benefits related to a rape or assault.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, are cosponsors of legislation introduced Wednesday that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to largely accept a victim's word that their physical or mental disabilities are related to a service-connected rape or assault in the absence of evidence proving otherwise.

Tester called the bill "simply a matter of fairness."

The disability would have to be consistent with the alleged attack, and the details must match a person's military service record in terms of time and location — but an official record of the attack, such as police or medical reports, would not be required.

By policy, an official report is not now required, but VA has discretion about whether to relax the rules. "We have made some progress but VA has been very inconsistent," said Pingree.

The joint bill is named the Ruth Moore Act for a Navy veteran who spent 23 years fighting to get full disability benefits for the trauma she suffered. Moore says she was raped by a supervisor while stationed in the Azores. After reporting the rape, Moore said she was raped again in retaliation.

Moore received a medical discharge and then spent 23 years battling with VA before she was awarded a 100-percent disability rating.

Appearing at a news conference with Tester and Pingree, Moore called the introduction of the bill a "bittersweet moment" and a sign that one person can make a difference.

Since going public last year with her battle, Moore said she has heard from thousands of others with similar stories who support her effort.

"It is outrageous that men and women who sign up for and defend our country end up victims of sexual assault in the first place," said Pingree. "Then to deny them the help they need to recover is simply unacceptable. It is very difficult for veterans who have been victims to qualify for the benefits they deserve. It is a classic case of adding insult to injury."

The legislation has the backing of the Service Woman's Action Network. Their executive director, Marine veteran Anu Bhagwati, said VA's rules are "unfair, unjust and cruel" because sexual assault victims are asked to provide official records that often don't exist because 85 percent of assaults go unreported.

She said victims face a "triple betrayal" because they are often raped by other service members, their commanders do not support them, and VA rejects their disability claims.

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