Help for Veterans Twice Betrayed

New York Times

This month, Representative Chellie Pingree, Democrat of Maine, and Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, introduced a bill that would make it easier for veterans to receive benefits for disabilities linked to sexual assault in the military. The bill is named for Ruth Moore, a Navy veteran who has been outspoken about what she calls her double betrayal.

The first was being raped, twice, by a supervisor when she was a teenager on her first Navy assignment in the 1980s – assaults that she says have brought her a lifetime’s worth of suffering, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, a suicide attempt and homelessness.

The second was her 23-year battle with the Veterans Affairs Department to collect disability benefits for her PTSD. Like other women and men who were sexually assaulted, Ms. Moore struggled to be believed and compensated. Her claims were repeatedly denied, which veterans’ groups say happens all too often. The Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy organization, found that the department approved only 32 percent of PTSD claims related to sexual trauma, compared with 53 percent of all other PTSD claims.

Sexual assaults are an underreported epidemic in the military – the Pentagon estimates that more than 19,000 service members are assaulted each year – and the damage they do is severe. Studies have shown that sexual trauma is the leading cause of PTSD among servicewomen. The V.A. recently made it easier for veterans who have served in war zones to qualify for PTSD-related benefits. But it has not done the same for survivors of sexual trauma, who can find it difficult to document a crime often cloaked in secrecy, denial and shame.

Women – who only now will be allowed into official combat roles – are deeply disadvantaged when seeking the compensation and treatment they deserve. The Ruth Moore Act would undo that injustice, easing the burden of proof for sexual-assault survivors who report mental health problems. It would also require the V.A. to submit annual reports to Congress on its handling of disability claims related to sexual trauma. For the thousands who have suffered in the aftermath of sexual assault, the bill brings a long-overdue promise of fairer treatment.