The Department of Veterans' Affairs is taking steps to ensure that military sexual-assault and rape survivors have less of a hard time getting the benefits they deserve, according to US Representative Chellie Pingree, who represents Southern Maine in Washington, DC.
The development comes as a result of Pingree putting pressure on the VA to make it easier for such veterans to get disability benefits without having to provide documentation (that in many cases doesn't exist).
The VA's new undersecretary for benefits, retired Air Force general Allison Hickey, sent a memo on June 27 to VA employees reiterating that sexual-assault disability claims may be more nebulous — backed up with less evidence — than other cases. "Employees should not expect to see evidence in most military sexual assault cases," the memo said. Indeed, the Pentagon estimates that only 10 percent of all sexual-assault cases are ever reported, greatly diminishing the chances of a paper trail or substantiation.
Veterans who have been denied benefits in the past should consider reapplying, says Pingree, who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and credits a former Marine (now serving on her staff) for initially bringing this issue to her attention. She encouraged veterans to call her Portland office for assistance.
Pingree is making military sexual assault one of her priorities; in a phone interview on Tuesday, she criticized the Pentagon's Uniform Code of Military Justice for being "too complicated" in how it deals with rape and sexual assault, and for making it too "easy for a perpetrator to be set free." US Senator Susan Collins, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has co-sponsored a bill (with Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry) that would address some of these issues by beefing up protections for sexual-assault victims while they are still in the military.
Earlier this year, Pingree introduced a bill that would require that military sexual trauma (MST) victims only need to show a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (accompanied by a medical opinion that the claimed assault could support a diagnosis), in order to receive benefits. Despite Hickey's memo and Pingree's hope that "this is something [Hickey is] putting her focus on," the representative does not plan to back away from her proposed legislation.
"It's a hopeful first step for us," she says of the VA's memo, but "it's not sufficient for us to think that we should withdraw our bill."