Veterans Affairs officials insist they are getting better at processing disability claims related to military sexual trauma, but outside critics say more still needs to be done to restore victims’ faith in the department’s systems.
“Because military sexual trauma can affect veterans’ mental and physical health, work, relationships and other aspects of their everyday life, it is imperative that VA provide veterans who have suffered MST with the full benefits and services they are due,” said Michael Missal, Inspector General for the department, in testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
“They must do so effectively, timely, and with compassion. Failure to meet these objectives can further traumatize vulnerable veterans and cause disengagement and serious harm.”
Those kinds of claims have been problematic for VA processors for years, in part because those crimes often go unreported in the military.
While veterans who claim post-traumatic stress disorder from combat are often only required to prove they served overseas, PTSD claims related to military sexual trauma often require veterans to detail their abuse and provide supporting evidence, even in cases where such actions could worsen a veteran’s mental health.
Research from Missal’s office in recent years has estimated that VA processors have mishandled thousands of veterans’ military sexual trauma claims, including failures to give specially trained staff enough time to fully review the cases.
Beth Murphy, executive director of the Veterans Benefits Administration Compensation Service, said that most of those errors are procedural, but that improvements have been made in recent years.
In fiscal 2018, about 57 percent of those claims were approved by the department. Last year, that figure rose to about 74 percent.
“VA staff have the knowledge, skills and resources they need to provide streamlined access to specialized veteran-centric care,” Murphy said. “There is strong commitment across VA to sustain and continue to enhance MST related support and outreach.”
Missal said he still sees areas of concern. An investigation by his office released earlier this year found numerous uncorrected problems dating back to 2018, despite promises of changes.
“Many of the military sexual trauma coordinators interviewed said they did not have enough time to fulfill all of the responsibilities of their role,” he told lawmakers. “A number of them said that other clinical duties interfered with the time needed to complete their MST related responsibilities … Others said that they did not have adequate resources.”
Several lawmakers called the lack of reforms unacceptable.
“The Inspector General’s testimony shows a frustratingly bad situation for survivors of sexual assault,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. “It represents an unacceptable disservice to our veterans.”
VA officials said they are working on more fixes. They are reviewing whether those specialists should be given more time each week for work dedicated to the military sexual trauma cases. Other improvements are expected to be unveiled in early 2022.
Past department studies have suggested that as many as one in three female veterans and one in 50 male veterans experienced sexual assault while in the service. Veterans advocates said improvements in how their cases are handled need to be a priority for department leaders.
“It is imperative that the Department of Veterans Affairs provides support for MST survivors and deliver their benefits and services with dignity and respect at the forefront,” said Kristina Keenan, associate director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ National Legislative Service.
“But feedback from our accredited representatives from across the country indicates that there are still obstacles that veterans face throughout the claims process … They have already suffered enough.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.