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Military Sexual Trauma Victims – Veterans Have Difficult Burden of Proof

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines the term “military sexual trauma” (MST) as a sexual assault or harassment experienced during military service and includes any sexual activity that occurred against your will. Anyone can be a victim of MST, regardless of gender.

The VA provides some examples, such as:
* Being pressured or coerced into sexual activities, such as with threats of negative treatment if you refuse to cooperate or with promises of better treatment in exchange for sex
* Someone having sexual contact with you without your consent, such as when you were asleep or intoxicated
* Being physically forced to have sex
* Being touched in a sexual way that made you uncomfortable
* Repeated comments about your body or sexual activities
* Threatening and unwanted sexual advances

Veterans who are victims of MST must provide evidence of the occurrence from their official Department of Defense records. Often these assaults go unreported due to the stigma or pressures of retaliation, so the victims have the burden of proof, years after the initial occurrence.

A new bill, the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2019, that is being proposed would expand access to veterans disability benefits for military sexual trauma victims and their survivors. The Department of Veterans Affairs opposes the bill, saying it is too broad and would require the VA to approve claims based upon the veteran’s statement, without any corroborating evidence.

A recent report from the VA Inspector General discovered that the VA may have incorrectly denied benefits to thousands of MST victims over several years. The findings come from the fact that at least 1,300 cases were mishandled over a six-month period in 2017 due to paperwork errors and procedural mistakes.

Those who introduced and support the legislation have stated that changes are necessary to prohibit the VA from retraumatizing MST victims, even if there is no paper trail to corroborate their story. The bill would diminish the burden of proof for military sexual assault survivors who apply for veterans disability benefits.

If put into law, veterans would be able to submit evidence outside normal military records, such as police records, medical transcripts, and statements from family members about changes in behavior. It would also require the VA to rule in favor of the victimized veteran in every reasonable doubt case, as is supposed to be the practice for VA claims of combat-related PTSD.

The bill proposes expanding the eligibility of service-connected disability benefits for mental health conditions beyond PTSD, including depression and anxiety, as long as the original cause is connected to military sexual trauma. The VA supports this provision and would allow victims of online harassment, stalking or other forms of “technological abuse” to receive VA counseling and treatment for MST.

According to a Department of Defense (DoD) report released last month, nearly 6 percent of female service members and 0.7 percent of male service members were victims of sexual assault in 2018. The DoD estimates over 20,000 service members experienced some kind of MST last year, which is a dramatic increase from 15,000 in 2016.

On average, the VA receives 18,000 military sexual trauma claims a year. By expanding service-connected disability benefits to mental health disorders other than PTSD, officials estimate this could jump to 30,000 or more.

The Injured Veterans legal team at Gordon & Partners is here for military veterans and their families. Please contact us immediately, if you are having difficulty with your claim or you are not receiving the disability benefits to which you are entitled. Call us at 1-888-231-9144 or fill out the form on this website.

Read the full story here: https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/06/21/how-far-should-victims-have-to-go-to-prove-military-sexual-trauma/