Legislation Introduced to Cut Red Tape for Sexual Assault Survivors

Lawmakers take steps to get military sexual assault victims benefits.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester visits with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Tester and Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree are pushing for benefits for military rape victims.
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At 18 years old, sailor Ruth Moore was sexually assaulted by her supervisor more than 25 years ago. She tried to report the crime, but was attacked again in return and discharged, not as a victim of rape, but with a misdiagnosis of border-line personality disorder.

"I fought for 23 years to get the benefits I was owed. My records were tampered with. I was diagnosed with a mental illness I didn't have, and my life fell apart," Moore says. "That shouldn't have to happen to anyone."

In 2009, an investigator at the Department of Veterans Affairs found that Moore's military records had been distorted and fought to get her the disability benefits she had long been seeking, but two decades had gone by.

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Lawmakers introduced the Ruth Moore Act Wednesday to help other military victims of sexual assault cut through red tape and more easily access the benefits they say are essential to healing.

Maine Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree and Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's legislation would require the VA to give rape victims who have PTSD as a result of the trauma benefits for their diagnosis even if they do not have formal documentation of the trauma.

"It's outrageous that men and women who sign up to defend our country end up being victims of sexual assault in the first place. Then to deny them the help they need to recover is simply unacceptable," PIngree said during a news conference. "It's a classic case of adding insult to injury."

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Currently, the VA designates how much proof they need to see from victims of sexual trauma to approve a claim. However, lawmakers said Wednesday that documentation of a crime is sometimes impossible to find because more than 85 percent of the military sexual assaults either go unreported or have been swept under the rug and inadequately handled.

In 2011, the Department of Defense estimated roughly 19,000 cases of sexual assault had occurred. Of that, roughly 3,000 were reported and fewer than 300 were prosecuted.

"Survivors of military sexual assault and sexual harassment still far too often face a triple betrayal," says Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, a group that supports survivors of military sexual assault. "First by their brothers-in-arms who rob them of their trust, then by commanders who fail to support them and finally by the VA which systematically rejects disability claims based on military sexual trauma."

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According to SWAN, the VA approved 54 percent of PTSD claims at large between 2008 and 2010, but approved only 32 percent of PTSD claims related to sexual assaults.

In recent years, the VA has relaxed the body of proof veterans need to show they suffer from PTSD because of something that happened in combat, but those new regulations are not extended to victims of sexual trauma.

Under this new legislation, victims of rape with PTSD will need only the diagnosis of a medical professional and evidence that their sexual trauma led to PTSD, to get their benefits.

"It is already the VA policy, but clearly members of Congress are finding what we have found, which is that the VA system is not equipped to handle these cases," says Nancy Parrish, the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that works on behalf of victims of sexual assault in the military.

The VA did not return request from comment by deadline.

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