Two national veterans’ advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it discriminates against victims of military sexual trauma who are seeking VA disability benefits.
The suit was brought by Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). They want the VA to change what they consider to be burdensome regulations governing claims for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that are based on rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment. They cite substantial gaps between benefit approvals for these claims compared to higher approvals for other PTSD claims.
The Yale Law School Veterans Legal Clinic is representing the plaintiffs and filed the suit in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The plaintiffs are asking that the rules conform to those governing PTSD claims based on combat trauma, Prisoner of War status, and fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, which are less stringent than those based on Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and are also situations that pose difficulty in obtaining corroboratory evidence.
“The VA knows the current process makes veterans who’ve been harmed by military sexual harassment and assault jump through more hoops than other PTSD claimants,” said Anu Bhagwati, SWAN executive director and a former Marine Corps captain.
“The result of this discrimination is that survivors of military sexual harassment and assault are denied life-saving benefits and critical income to support themselves and their families,” she said.
If the rules were changed, she said, “I would think that thousands and thousands of additional veterans would be filing claims based on (sexual) assault and harassment and the VA doesn’t want them to do that.”
The VA wouldn’t comment specifically on the lawsuit. According to a VA spokesperson, in 2002, the VA relaxed its regulation regarding MST claims, and in 2011, developed training curricula for claims specialists to help them recognize PTSD symptoms resulting from sexual trauma. Veterans denied MST benefits before the training may ask to have their cases reviewed, the spokesperson said.
But, plaintiffs said that isn’t enough. Gary Jacob, SWAN policy director, said that there are still large gaps among VA regional offices in terms of MST benefit approvals. “Their sensitivity may have changed,” he said. But, he added, “until a regulation is written that is consistent with other claims, there is no guarantee of the same likelihood of being approved.”
Joya Sonnenfeldt, a Yale law student working on the lawsuit, said that 2013 figures the VA provided to Congress showed that about half of the 8,000 MST-related disability claims for PTSD were denied. “Many people choose not to file claims in the first place because it is so hard to prove them” under existing regulations, she said.
Daniella Rohr, another Yale Law student, said MST victims “suffered long enough.” She said regulation changes would help ensure that these veterans “get the benefits that they so desperately need.”
In a conference call announcing the lawsuit, a Coast Guard veteran who said she was raped twice and sexually harassed in the military more than 30 years ago, said she still suffers from severe PTSD and experiences flashbacks and intrusive memories of her rapes. She wouldn’t identify herself.
Last November, SWAN, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Connecticut released a report showing that PTSD benefit claims based on military sexual trauma were approved 16 to 30 percent less than other PTSD claims. They obtained their statistics after filing two Freedom of Information lawsuits against the VA.
But the VA cites improvement. A spokesperson said that benefit approvals for such claims in 2013 rose to “within 6 percentage points of the overall grant rate for all PTSD claims.”
In June, 2013, SWAN and Vietnam Veterans of America submitted a formal petition to the VA seeking a change in the rule governing PTSD claims based on military sexual trauma. But, the VA hasn’t responded.
“The VA has pushed back hard against those who all asked for this regulation to change,” said Jacob, a former Marine captain.
And, “things couldn’t be worse,” he said. “We now know that 26,000 service members experience MST-triggered PTSD and that the majority goes unreported; that MST is a greater predictor of PTSD for women as combat service is for men; and that up until last year, the DOD (Defense Department) destroyed records of sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
“Veterans are literally dying, waiting for the VA to do its job,” Jacob said.