In 1986, at age 18, I joined the Navy eager to fight for my country. I had no idea that two and a half months into my first assignment, I would be raped – twice – by my supervisor. That was the first betrayal - resulting in a life filled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraines, a sexually transmitted disease, miscarriages, suicide attempts, homelessness, an end to my marriage, and terror I have lived with ever since. Now in my 40s, I am permanently and totally disabled. PTSD affects my ability to maintain employment, trust in relationships,function socially, and even get up in the morning.
The second betrayal I experienced was when the Veterans Administration (VA) repeatedly denied me disability benefits for PTSD that I was entitled to by law and they wouldn’t correct their errors, even when they were first addressed over 19 years ago, in 1993.
After twenty-three years of fighting the VA, I finally had my claim awarded (without any retroactive compensation)– but only at a 70% disability rating. In two and a half decades, while dealing with the aftermath of my assault without anyVA support, I suffered enormously.
I am not alone. By DOD’s own estimates, over 19,000 service members are assaulted in the military each year - over 500,000 men and women in the past five decades. For countless veterans like me, a denied VA claim is the second betrayal, and can mean the difference between life and death. And yet the VA has established and used a completely biased, unjust system for approving PTSD disability benefits. It is a system that is designed to save money and cut costs to our veterans. This results in veterans suffering needlessly.
Last year, the civil rights organization Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) uncovered appalling data. From 2008-2010, the VA only approved 32.3% of Military Sexual Trauma-related PTSD claims versus 54.2% of all other PTSD claims. It’s not surprising – the VA requires survivors like me to provide evidence that usually doesn’t exist, and even when we do provide it, the VA doesn’t believe us, or worse yet, they discount it or “lose” it, like they did in my case. Why are we punished twice? Each time we reopen a claim with VA, we are forced to relive our trauma and pain.
The VA has the authority to make a simple regulatory change, so that Military Sexual Trauma survivors aren’t held to a higher standard of proof than other veterans with PTSD. I am asking the VA to revise its policy immediately, then ensure that all regional offices follow the same standards when processing MST and PTSD claims– so that veterans like me do not have to live the rest of their lives in pain, or worse – take their own lives.
General Shinseki, you must act now. You have the ability to help and save hundreds of thousands of lives with the power of your pen.
America’s outcry demands that you face the crisis of rape in the military and be there for those of us who have served our country with more honor than we ever received.
SWAN is a civil rights organization founded and led by women veterans. SWAN's vision is to transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and the freedom to serve in uniform without threat of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or assault. SWAN also seeks to reform veterans' services on a national scale to guarantee equal access to quality health care, benefits and resources for women veterans and their families. You can find the Service Women's Action Network onour homepage, on Twitter or on Facebook.