Bill addresses sexual trauma

Great Falls Tribune

by Jenn Rowell

In 2006, Sarah Albertson had been in the Marine Corps for three years.

That year, she was raped by a supervisor who was 12 years her senior.

She reported the assault, but her command had the attitude that it wasn’t a big deal, she said, though they didn’t deny it happened.

“I had a really hard time dealing with what had happened and being forced to live around him and work for him,” she said.

Albertson had a lot of mental health issues around that time and would break down at work. She once locked herself in a boss’s office.

“I was trying so hard to get away, but I had nowhere to go,” she said. “I kept getting punished because I couldn’t just be OK with what had happened.”

Last year, Albertson went to D.C. for a summit of survivors organized by the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN. There she met other survivors, heard stories like hers, and the entire group went to the Capitol to meet with their state representatives.

It was there she met Sen. Jon Tester, who was the only state lawmaker in D.C. to personally sit down and talk with her, she said.

She told him about the hurdles in reporting sexual assault in the military and they briefly discussed the small rate of VA claims that are approved related to military sexual trauma or MST.

That issue continued to be a priority for SWAN and today, Tester is introducing a bill to help survivors of MST get benefits from the VA.

Currently, the burden of proof is on the victim, which isn’t the case for veterans suffering from combat related post traumatic stress, Albertson said. The bill relaxed the evidentiary standards for tying a mental health condition to an assault according to Tester’s office.

Albertson stayed in the military for two more years after the attack, but it was very difficult.

She suffered from depression, which caused her to gain weight.

The Marine Corps put her in a six-month weight-loss program and she was doing well, she said.

But about two months into it, her attacker was put in charge of the program and she had to report to him about her weight loss, food journals and other information.

“It was really traumatizing,” she said.

When she got out of the military and transitioned to the Department of Veterans Affairs system, she was given a 30 percent disability rating, but only 10 percent of that was for mental health stemming from the attack.

The rating impacts her access to medical treatment programs and also disability compensation, which felt like a “huge slap in the face” she said.

“You’re not believed when you’re in the military and try to make a report and get justice,” she said. “When you get out and try to get care, you’re still not believed.”

Albertson is now a graduate student at Montana State University studying counseling. She said the counseling she had in the military after the attack helped her and inspired her to help others dealing with similar situations.

Her attacker was promoted about two months after the attack.

Katy Otto, spokeswoman for SWAN, said the organization joined with the ACLU to file a freedom of information request with the VA for numbers relating to mental health claims. They found from 2008-2010 that only 32 percent of MST related claims were approved as compared to 53 percent of post-traumatic stress claims at large.

“This was a crystal clear indicator to us of a system bias,” Otto said.

They’ve requested data from 2011, but haven’t received it yet. She said they’ve heard verbally that the claims are being processed at a higher rate and the VA has trained those that process the claims and assign disability ratings.

“We believe the problem still isn’t fixed,” Otto said. “We think we need more than just the word of the VA that things are getting better. We need this to be a policy in writing.”

Tester is introducing a bill in the Senate and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is introducing the same bill in the House today. The bill is named the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, for a Navy veteran who dealt with post-traumatic stress and homelessness as a result of her assault and discharge from the Navy. It took 23 years for her claim to be honored, Otto said.

The military has made the issue of sexual assault a top priority and has taken steps to make the reporting process less arduous and also to lessen the fear of retaliation or other punishments through the military command structure.

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) is an office of the Department of Defense and was created in late 2005 to serve as the department’s single point of authority for sexual assault policy and provides oversight to ensure that each of the service’s programs complies with DoD policy.

The office also conducts training for all sexual assault response coordinators, which are located at military installations and facilities nationwide.

Albertson said she knows of many veterans who have been turned away from the VA .

According to DoD data, nearly 90 percent of sexual assaults in the military go unreported.

The same data shows that 3,192 military sexual assaults were reported in fiscal year 2011, an increase of 1 percent from FY 2010 and a 1.1 percent decrease from 2009.

In 2010, about 55 percent of women and 38 percent of men reported that their assailant sexually harassed or stalked them prior to the incident of rape or sexual assault, according to the data.

Albertson said passage of the bill would encourage more people to come forward and also to claim their benefits.