The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America filed a federal lawsuit last week alleging that the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) discriminates against survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) in granting disability claims. The suit uses the term “military sexual trauma” to encompass not only military sexual assault, but sexual harassment and rape.

The lawsuit alleges that the VA makes military sexual assault trauma who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) go through more procedural hurdles than other veterans to receive disability benefits. For example, a veteran suffering from PTSD from combat must submit only a statement to receive benefits, while veterans who are MST survivors must submit additional evidence like court documents and prove that their PTSD was caused by their military service. Further, disability claims for MST survivors are approved at a 16 to 30 percent lower rate than other veterans. The lawsuit specifically alleges gender discrimination, against both male and female MST survivors, especially noting that only 37 percent of the disability claims of male MST survivors are granted.

“The VA knows the current process makes veterans who’ve been harmed by military sexual harassment and assault jump through more hoops than other PTSD claimants to apply for and receive PTSD disability benefits,” said Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of SWAN and former Marine Corps captain. “But they refuse to change their regulations. The result of this discrimination is that survivors of military sexual harassment and assault are denied life-saving benefits and critical income to support themselves and their families.”

An estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assaults in the military occurred in 2012, according to a report by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program of the Department of Defense, and reports of sexual assault jumped 50 percent last year.

Legislators have been fighting to pass reforms of military procedures to hold perpetrators more accountable. In March, the Senate passed a limited military sexual assault reform bill that would eliminate the “good soldier defense” in trials, give accusers more power to choose whether their cases go through the military or the civilian system, allow victims to challenge their discharge from the military, increase the accountability of commanders, and extend the changes to service academies.

Media Resources: Vietnam Veterans of America 4/30/14; Service Women’s Action Network 4/29/14; RH Reality Check 5/2/14; Associated Press 5/1/14; Feminist Newswire 3/11/14

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