In the past, if a Veteran made a claim for disability compensation for a condition caused by a military sexual assault (MST) or personal trauma (PT), the victim had to prove the event occurred with police reports, medical records, or some other type of evidence that could show that the crime occurred. For most claims, this is standard evidence requirement. However, for those who suffered a sexual assault or personal trauma, Veterans often did not report the incident or seek medical treatment making VA MST claims difficult.
The stigma that surrounds sexual assault in the military can often lead to the loss of a career. Military victims, male and female, are often ridiculed, shunned, and subjected to further abuses when they reveal an assault. The mental health reactions can often be mistaken as adjustment or personality disorders that lead to discharges and the loss of career, purpose, family, income, and self-worth. After years of civilian doctors, advocates, and therapists pushing for changes, the VA finally recognized that in this type of crime, victims more often than not, do not report the event. Sometimes, going forward with their daily routine is how they cope with the incredibly horrific event that has just occurred to them.
The VA Response
The VA responded in 2002, by lowering the level of evidentiary proof for cases of MST and PT than other claims. For these claims, the VA requires only that there are “markers” to the event to show that it is “more likely than not” that the event occurred in order for a Veteran to receive an award for benefits if they are suffering from a mental or physical condition as a result of one of these crimes. Markers are anything that can indicate that something happened. This can include changes in behavior, increased visits to their doctor, requests for changes in duty station or assignment, routine changes, increased or new alcohol or substance use, and increased risky behaviors such as volunteering for extra deployments or starting to skydive. There can also be emotional changes such as becoming angry, irritable, or withdrawn and isolative. Sometimes people can even become more outgoing or social as a way to hide pain, but any changes can be markers. Statements from family, friends, or coworkers indicating their observations of changes in behaviors are also valid evidence in MST and PT cases.
Why Should a Veteran File a Claim?
Veterans who are experiencing any type of mental or physical effects of an MST or PT should file a claim for disability compensation for two reasons. First, is to obtain healthcare benefits. Whenever a condition becomes service-connected, the condition also is now treatable by the VA medical system at no cost to the Veteran. While mental health issues are now often available at no cost to most veterans, having a condition service connected affords a Veteran increased options for innovative types of therapy that may not be available otherwise.
The second reason is for compensation. If a Veteran is experiencing mental health conditions that are just minor, they may receive a low rating or even a 0% rating. However, getting that initial rating makes it easier to get increased benefits later if their symptoms get worse. Unfortunately with mental health conditions associated with trauma, sometimes even years later, an event can trigger an increase in symptoms. If the Veteran is already service connected, they can file for an increase in benefits or even Individual Unemployability much easier than trying to get service connected at that point. The process is long and frustrating, so filing the initial claim while symptoms are not as severe is less emotionally challenging as well.
The third reason, and this is not the most important to the Veteran but could be to their brother and sister Veterans, is to show how severe the problem is. In 2014, it is estimated that almost 20,000 military members were victims of unwanted sexual contact. Just over 4% of active duty females and almost 1% of active duty males were victims and of those, only 43% of females and 10% of males reported the assaults.
Has this Change been Effective in Awarding Claims for Victims?
The change has been very effective in increasing the number of Veterans whose claims for PTSD related to MST were awarded. Since FY 2011, there has been an increase from 35.6% to 53.4% by FY (to date) 2017. That is a very dramatic change in only six years and shows that sometimes the VA does something that ends up being very beneficial for Veterans.
Filing a claim for a mental health condition related to MST is something to be done with care to ensure that the Veteran is not re-traumatized. Work with a therapist or sexual assault advocate to provide support and encouragement for a Veteran going through this very difficult process.