AP IMPACT: Military sex abuse victims seek VA help

Monday - 5/20/2013, 12:22pm EDT

KEVIN FREKING
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than 85,000 veterans were treated last year for injuries or illness stemming from sexual abuse in the military, and 4,000 sought disability benefits, underscoring the staggering long-term impact of a crisis that has roiled the Pentagon and been condemned by President Barack Obama as "''shameful and disgraceful."

A Department of Veterans Affairs accounting released in response to inquiries from The Associated Press shows a heavy financial and emotional cost involving vets from Iraq, Afghanistan and even back to Vietnam, and lasting long after a victim leaves the service.

Sexual assault or repeated sexual harassment can trigger a variety of health problems, primarily post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. While women are more likely to be victims, men made up nearly 40 percent of the patients the VA treated last year for conditions connected to what it calls "military sexual trauma."

It took years for Ruth Moore of Milbridge, Maine, to begin getting treatment from a VA counseling center in 2003 -- 16 years after she was raped twice while she was stationed in Europe with the Navy. She continues to get counseling at least monthly for PTSD linked to the attacks and is also considered fully disabled.

"We can't cure me, but we can work on stability in my life and work on issues as they arrive," Moore said.

VA officials stress that any veteran who claims to have suffered military sexual trauma has access to free health care.

"It really is the case that a veteran can simply walk through the door, say they've had this experience, and we will get them hooked up with care. There's no documentation required. They don't need to have reported it at the time," said Dr. Margret Bell, a member of the VA's military sexual trauma team. "The emphasis is really on helping people get the treatment that they need."

However, the hurdles are steeper for those who seek disability compensation -- too steep for some veterans groups and lawmakers who support legislation designed to make it easier for veterans to get a monthly disability payment.

"Right now, the burden of proof is stacked against sexual trauma survivors," said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. "Ninety percent of 26,000 cases last year weren't even reported. So where is that evidence supposed to come from?"

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said reducing the incidence of sexual assaults in the military is a top priority. But it's a decades-old problem with no easy fix, as made even more apparent when an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office was arrested on sexual battery charges.

"We will not stop until we've seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated," Obama said after summoning top Pentagon officials to the White House last week to talk about the problem. "Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be."

The VA says 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men screen positive for military sexual trauma, which the VA defines as "any sexual activity where you are involved against your will." Some report that they were victims of rape, while others say they were groped or subjected to verbal abuse or other forms of sexual harassment.

But not all those veterans seek health care or disability benefits related to the attacks. The 85,000 who sought outpatient care linked to military sexual trauma during the latest fiscal year are among nearly 22 million veterans around the country.

The VA statistics underscore that the problems for victims of sexual abuse do not end when someone leaves the service.

Psychological issues, including PTSD, depression and anxiety, are most common, according to the agency. Victims also can develop substance abuse problems.

Some victims like Moore are so disabled that they are unable to work. Others need ongoing care at VA outpatient clinics and hospitals.

In the final six months of 2011, an average of 248 veterans per month filed for disability benefits related to sexual trauma. That rose by about a third, to 334 veterans per month in 2012, an increase the VA attributed in part to better screening for the ongoing trauma associated with sexual assault. Of those who filed in 2012, about two-thirds were women and nearly a third were men.

"We do a lot more awareness, and as we educate everyone on the potential benefits and that it's OK to come forward, I think you see an increase in reporting," said Edna MacDonald, director of the VA's regional office in Nashville.