Military Sexual Trauma has been a previous blog subject, and the topic of sexual trauma is never an easy subject to discuss, much less write about, particularly if one is a victim of such a heinous act. I feel it bears more coverage because of the residual effects it has on those who have had to live through such a terrifying experience as it relates to obtaining compensation benefits. Unfortunately, for a lot of veterans, it can seem very taboo when it comes to obtaining these benefits, as it is a subject they are not willing to bring out into the open for fear of retribution from a superior officer or other. We must bear in mind that this sort of trauma is not exclusive to just women veterans; it is all too prevalent with men veterans, too, and like women, are very reluctant to talk about it.
Military sexual trauma, or MST, is defined by the VA as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the veteran was serving on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training.” More specifically, MST involves any sexual activity where a veteran is involved against his or her will. The veteran may have been pressured into sexual activities. An example of this is a threat of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative, or an offer of better treatment in exchange for sex. Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing; threatening, offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities, and threatening and unwelcome sexual advances. It doesn’t matter what the identity or characteristics of the perpetrator are, or whether the veteran was on or off duty at the time, or even whether he/she was on or off base. If any of these experiences occurred while a veteran was on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty for training, they are considered by the VA to be MST.
Can a veteran get disability compensation for MST? The answer is two-fold. A veteran cannot receive compensation on the basis of military sexual trauma alone. He/she must have a compensable health condition, such as PTSD, depression, panic attacks, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders. Often times, veterans develop PTSD more from the retaliation that occurs when they report the crime than by the sexual assault itself. For veterans who have served in prior wars such as Vietnam, this is especially true due to lack of resources or recognition for these types of crimes at that time. A veteran is eligible for disability compensation if they can prove:
- The incident of military sexual trauma occurred while on active duty.
- There is a current diagnosis of a mental or physical disability.
- Any disabilities were caused by, or worsened by, the military sexual trauma suffered while in service
Most survivors of MST are very unlikely to have any documentation showing that the sexual assault or harassment occurred. The stigma that accompanies reporting such assaults is tremendous, plus, assaults are often not reported right away. Because of this, the military frequently has taken no disciplinary action against the perpetrators of these assaults, which ultimately means there are no records at all of what happened. The VA does understand this and doesn’t require that service medical records contain proof of the assault or harassment. There are other forms of proof of the incident(s) that are acceptable, and they include:
- Police records and/or records from rape crisis center
- Lay or buddy statements from friends in the service, as well as family members, clergy, or counselors
- Pregnancy tests or tests for sexually transmitted diseases
- Diaries or journals kept during the time of the trauma
Also accepted is proof of behavioral changes, such as:
- Marital and/or sexual difficulties.
- Evidence of a drug or alcohol problem.
- Transfer request documentation.
- Job performance changes and/or social or economic behavior changes for which there is no other explanation.
- Incidents of anxiety or depression for which no other cause has been identified.
It is important to note that it is difficult to obtain benefits for MST, and many veterans feel traumatized all over again when the VA tells them they can’t have benefits because they have not provided enough evidence. In the veteran’s mind, their particular MST incident is being trivialized. All too often, veterans who have reported sexual assault by another service member have been medically discharged for a personality disorder and denied benefits based on that diagnosis. If this happens, a veteran can apply to have the reason for discharge changed in order to obtain benefits. He/she can seek to have their diagnosis changed from personality disorder to PTSD. The VA awards benefits for PTSD and other mental illnesses, but they won’t compensate for personality disorders. The VA Form 21-526 EZ Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits is what a veteran needs to initiate their claim. If he/she has a claim for PTSD based on MST, A VA Form 21-0781a Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for PTSD Secondary to Personal Assault should accompany the VA Form 21-526EZ upon initial filing of the claim. While a VA MST Claim can be difficult, it is not unwinnable.