Senator Jon Tester and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree introduce bill
(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - At a press conference in Washington today, Senator Jon Tester and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree introduced the Ruth Moore Act, a bill that will make it easier for survivors of military sexual assault get the benefits they deserve.
"We have a responsibility to meet the needs of all victims of service-related trauma," said Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "This legislation is simply a matter of fairness to make sure that survivors of military sexual assault get the support they deserve without having to jump through additional hoops."
"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. "It's very difficult to prove sexual assault within the current system, which makes it just as difficult for veterans who have been victims to qualify for the benefits they deserve. It's a classic case of adding insult to injury."
The bill is named after Ruth Moore, a veteran from Maine who was raped twice after enlisting in the Navy at age 18. Moore reported the attacks, but the attacker was never charged or disciplined. Moore was labeled as suffering from mental illness and discharged from the Navy. She then fought for over twenty years before she was finally awarded the veterans benefits she deserved.
At today's press conference, Moore told her story of struggling with the after-effects of the attacks and her fight to get veterans benefits.
"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. That shouldn't have to happen to anyone and this bill will make it a little easier for veterans who deserve some compensation," Moore said.
Senator Max Baucus is a cosponsor of the bill.
"No victim of sexual assault should have to worry about being the victim of an unjust system when they seek help - least of all those who dedicate themselves to protecting our country," Baucus said. "When the unspeakable happens, we have a responsibility to make sure victims have the support they need to recover - that is what this bill is about."
More than 85 percent of all military sexual assaults go unreported, which means veterans have a hard time meeting the burden of proof when applying for benefits. The legislation Pingree and Tester introduced today makes it easier for veterans to qualify for benefits, since they only have to show a medical diagnosis of a mental health condition and a link between an assault and that mental health condition.
Recently the Veterans Administration reduced the standard of proof for combat veterans who suffer from PTSD. Pingree and Tester say that same standard should be offered to victims of military sexual assault.
Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), also spoke at the press conference and said the legislation is long overdue.
"Survivors of military sexual assault and sexual harassment still far too often face a triple betrayal--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. The VA has established an unfair, unjust and cruel claims policy for veterans who have been wounded by military sexual violence and has allowed its employees to reject Military Sexual Trauma claims for decades, and the time has come for reform to be officially legislated into law," Bhagwati said.
This issue came to Tester's attention through a constituent named Sara Albertson. Sara shared her story of military sexual trauma and her inability to receive VA benefits.
"The day I was raped was the worst day of my life," Albertson said. "When I tried to get the care I needed - the care that other survivors receive - I was told to forget that I was ever attacked. This unacceptable situation has been swept under the rug for too long, and I appreciate Senator Tester and Congresswoman Pingree for working to make sure that future military survivors of sexual violence get the care they deserve."
According to the Pentagon, 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military in 2010, but only about 13 percent of victims reported the attacks. In 2011, less than 8 percent of reported cases went to trial and less than 200 attackers were eventually convicted.