Tester condemns VA over military sexual assault response

Senator calls department letter to survivors ‘inappropriate’

(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester is criticizing a Department of Veterans Affairs letter to survivors of military sexual assault as inappropriate, insensitive, and unhelpful for veterans seeking post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) benefits.

Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says the letter, which attempts to advise assault survivors how to have their denied PTSD benefit claims re-evaluated, is “inappropriate given the enormity and sensitivity of the issue.”

“The VA must ensure all veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma receive the care and benefits they need, but we have a number of concerns about the VA’s current approach,” Tester wrote VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. “Veterans who have had their claims improperly adjudicated may be hesitant to trust the VA to review their claim without reassurance that VA will undertake a more comprehensive, practical, and sensitive approach.”

Tester says the VA’s letter fails to explain how the department’s plan to review denied benefit claims will better support sexual assault survivors. He also highlights the VA’s failure to include basic contact information for survivors who want their disability claims re-evaluated and the department’s failure to work with veteran service organizations during the review process.

Survivors of military sexual assault often cope with PTSD, but have a difficult time meeting the burden of proof to receive disability benefits because more than 85 percent of assaults go unreported. There were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012.

To increase the number of assaults that get reported – as well as reduce the number of sexual assaults in the military – Tester is cosponsoring a bipartisan bill that better protects survivors of military sexual assault and strips military commanders of their ability to dismiss a court-martial conviction for most offenses, including cases of rape and sexual assault.

Tester’s bill, introduced by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), would also make it a punishable offense to retaliate against a victim who reports a criminal offense.

Tester and McCaskill’s Better Enforcement for Sexual Assault Free Environment Act is available online HERE. Tester’s letter to VA Secretary Shinseki is available online HERE.

Senator Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, joined Tester in sending the letter to Shinseki.