A Navy Times article quotes a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) official, David McLenachen, VA's Director of Pension and Fiduciary Service, who represented the agency at the hearing HR 672, or The Ruth Moore Act. VA, he says, rejects the the bill because
veterans who file sexual trauma-related claims are “given a full and fair opportunity to have their claim considered,” [but] McLenachen said VA would like higher thresholds for evidence.Such a position conflicts with a major goal of the bill, according to Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who sponsors the legislation. Named for a Navy veteran who fought for 23 years to receive disability compensation for PTSD after being raped twice during her military service, the Act's intent runs precisely counter to McLenachen's claim that what's required are more stringent regulations. According to Rep. Pringree,
“VA will tell you that their system accepts secondary markers as evidence to verify an assault occurred,” she said. “As comforting as that sounds, we have seen time and time again that VA is vastly inconsistent in applying those standards. What one regional office will accept as proof, another will deny.
“The bottom line is that for too long the burden of proof has been on the veteran, and that needs to change now.”
As is too often the case, VA's official position conflicts with that of every major Veterans Support Organization (VSO). The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America all strongly support HR 672 and S 294, a similar bill in the Senate. In an FY 11 Defense Department (DoD) report conducted by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), researchers looked at 1,612 investigations of Military Sexual Assault (MSA). In this case, a single investigation can involve multiple cases of sexual assault. Among these investigations, 88 percent of the victims were female and 12 percent were male; most victims were in the junior enlisted ranks (63 percent); and most were less than 24 years of age. Nearly 90 percent of the MSA perpetrators were male, about half from the junior enlisted ranks, with senior enlisted, officers, civilians and "unknown" perpetrators making up the rest. In this case, it is suggestive that MSA victims concentrate among younger, mostly female, junior enlisted service members. Those with less power or voice within the organization or system would appear to be more frequently victims of assault and have less access to protection or redress of concerns.
Fortunately, more courageous voices than McLenachen's echoed through the hearing room from among those enlisted "victims." Those individuals' experiences speak volumes. One of them, SGT Rebecca Harvilla, was the only female member of a bomb squad serving in eastern Afghanistan. If serving in a combat zone, in an extremely dangerous military occupational specialty (MOS) were not enough to contribute to a future diagnosis of PTSD (or much worse), consider constant fear of her own "battle-buddies," her comrades in arms. "The rape," she said, "was the 'ironic icing on the cake.'"
What started in basic training in January of 2004 with sexual jokes, innuendoes and simulated sexual play escalated to groping, slapping, harassment and ultimately ended with a rape before she left Afghanistan in September 2009, she said.So, much like civilian rape victims, facing harassment and bullying on top of suffering the trauma of rape, SGT Harvilla and others like her should now, according to VA, meet a "higher threshold of evidence" because, of course, that's just what rape victims in combat zones (or anywhere else) are attempting to piece together while the assault is occurring.
Havrilla's story gets worse before it gets better: she ran into her alleged rapist at a shop on Fort Leonard Wood; says she was told by a military chaplain that "it must have been God's will for her to be raped"; and says a friend found pictures of the attack on a pornography website.
Clearly, VA officials might benefit from reviewing some of the special characteristics of MSA (in addition to those in common with civilian sexual assault) that might complicate reporting these crimes: Consider that the
reasons given for such profound consequences of sexual abuse in the military are akin to the reasons women do not report sexual abuse. These include the torturing combination of isolation within a confined, no-exit environment; threat of death from the rapist; marginalization and punishment when reporting abuse; no one watching your back; and a command that wants the problem and "the messenger" to go away. It's a toxic, private war zone that takes more psychic strength to endure than combat.Is it any wonder then that out of the 19,000 estimated MSAs the Defense Department claims occur each year, only about 1,100 get filed for investigation? Out of those cases, 575 get processed and 96 result in a court martial.
Is it wise for the VA to come out officially opposed to bi-partisan legislation designed to discourage this most heinous crime by encouraging its victims to come forward, get help, and get the compensation they are due? No, it's just absurd, actually. When polled as to why they join the military, all enlistees' responses get compiled and reported together. Therefore, all male and female respondents to surveys claim the same basic motives for having joined the military. Those include patriotism and a willingness to serve as a means to demonstrate that otherwise abstract (and ideologically abused) notion, as well as desire for education, training and future employment benefits, and a means for improving their lives. After training and preparing recruits for service, including in combat, teaching principles of brotherhood/sisterhood, loyalty, honor, integrity, and dedication to duty, it would be wrong for DoD not to vigorously pursue policies to reverse trends in the occurrence of MSA, ensuring victims get treatment and perpetrators get prosecuted. To do anything other than this would be madness. All men and women who serve their country deserve this basic respect toward their humanity, especially since their service, itself, may involve sacrifice of their lives.
Just as it would be patently wrong for DoD not to uphold such standards and enforce adherence to them, it is woefully misguided for VA to not support and advance the means by which MSA victims can attain every help that is due to them after they have separated from service. Taking any other position is callous or heartless, at best. At it's worst, if such a position discourages MSA victims from reporting assaults, such a tactic becomes aiding and abetting the occurrence of crimes, and is, therefore, criminal.