Recently, the issue of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) has made a resurgence in our national discourse. Recent statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that one in every five women who receive medical treatment at the VA have reported MST. In fact, military and VA leaders freely admit that MST is widely underreported.
To understand how MST is handled by the VA, one must first understand what MST is. Many events can constitute MST, such as:
- sexual assault(s)
- sexual harassment
- unwanted sexual touching or grabbing
- threatening, offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities, and/or
- threatening or unwelcome sexual advances
One of the most frequent misconceptions about MST is that only women are affected. This is simply not true. Men can also be victims. Oftentimes, I’ve found in my practice that men are more likely than women to suffer in silence.
The unfortunate reality of MST is that it is often very difficult for most survivors to deal with the trauma, let alone decide to then deal with the VA in order to be compensated. Recently, there has been much debate between the VA and PTSD advocacy groups regarding the approval rate for MST claims versus the approval rate of PTSD claims that do not involve MST. At the end of the day, the consensus is that MST claims have a lower approval rating than other non-MST PTSD claims. Despite this reality, it is important to note that MST claims are usually difficult; however, they are winnable.
Filing a claim is the first step. As with all disability claims, if the claim is never filed, then the veteran cannot be compensated. After the claim is filed, the VA will proceed to develop the claim, just as they do all other claims. Most frequently this entails the VA requesting medical records, scheduling a compensation and pension examination, and requesting statements from the veteran. After which, the VA will make a decision. Unfortunately, as stated above, MST claims have a lower approval rating than other PTSD claims; therefore, many claims are initially denied. Or, if the claim is approved, the percentage of disability that is granted is normally underrated, as compared to the severity of the impact of the trauma on the veteran’s life. In both situations, it is incumbent upon the veteran to file an appeal to pursue the benefits rightfully owed to them.
There are two common difficulties with MST claims that I see over and over again in my practice:
- Lack of a formal diagnosis of PTSD as a result of MST– As previously stated, there are many reasons for this. Many are afraid to come forward and have never disclosed the trauma to anyone, let alone a medical provider. Many have treated at the VA for years, carrying other mental health diagnoses, but have never been diagnosed with PTSD. The list of reasons could go on and on. The bottom line is that failure to have a valid diagnosis of PTSD as a result of MST is often fatal to the claim. For additional information regarding the criteria for a valid diagnosis of PTSD, please refer to a previous blog that I wrote on the subject.
- Many veterans give up because they assume that they have no claim if they have no objective proof of the event– Because MST is often underreported, there is usually no foolproof evidence that an event in service- the MST stressor- actually took place. The good news is that this is not fatal to the claim. Within recent years, the VA has acknowledged the special difficulties associated with MST claims, and as such, there is a separate VA regulation governing these types of claims. The VA will allow a veteran to submit various forms of evidence to help substantiate the MST, for example: statements from family members/fellow service members/clergy; documented tests for pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases; episodes of depression, panic attacks, or anxiety without an identifiable cause; requests for transfer to another military duty assignment; and so forth. Foolproof evidence of the MST event is not necessary to be successful.
The important take away is that despite the inherent difficulties with MST claims, these claims are winnable. At Hill & Ponton, we have handled many of these claims, and we would be honored to help you fight for the benefits you deserve.