This guest blog post was written by 2014 Equal Justice Works Fellow, Tiffany Kelley.
"After my military sexual trauma, I spent 13 years trying to find a way to get the benefits I deserve. I found an article on GQ with contact info for the National Veterans Legal Services Program and decided to give it one last shot. The team has worked thoroughly with me, giving me hope that we can finally rectify this traumatic experience."—Message to Tiffany Kelley from a male survivor
When young men and women take the enlisted or officer oath and decide that they want to join the military, it is an act of courage and a conscious decision to swear allegiance to this nation. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly. We should remember to regularly thank them for their service and sacrifices for this country.
Unfortunately, a class of those who sacrifice consists of men and women who were either sexually assaulted or sexually harassed during military service. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines these horrible experiences as Military Sexual Trauma (MST). According to data compiled by the VA, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men state that they experienced MST during military service. Many of these survivors develop mental conditions that can have a profound impact on their lives, often causing varying degrees of long-lasting occupational and social impairment.
Due to the prolonged impact of their experiences, survivors of MST often turn to the VA for treatment and for disability compensation. Thanks to my Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by Raytheon and Kirkland & Ellis, LLP, I am able to assist veterans afflicted with mental conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD), depression, or anxiety due to the traumatic sexual assault or sexual harassment they experienced while serving in the military. These survivors request my help with applications or appeals to the VA for disability benefits related to MST. My fellowship is graciously hosted by the National Veterans Legal Services Program—a premiere veterans advocacy organization, located in Washington, DC.
As I have been working with MST survivors since the fall of 2014, I have become familiar with the issues related to MST. While the VA is making positive steps towards providing better service to these survivors, there is still work to be done to make the process easier for survivors claiming VA disability benefits.
Survivors of sexual trauma rarely report this type of traumatic event while in the military. Unfortunately, the absence of an official record can cause challenges when they later attempt to file for disability compensation. However, because the VA understands that there is drastic underreporting of sexual assaults, it applies a relaxed evidentiary standard to claims for VA disability compensation for PTSD related to MST. The VA’s relaxed evidentiary standard allows evidence from sources other than a veteran’s service records and evidence of behavior changes after the event to be used as evidence that the traumatic event actually happened. Therefore, MST survivors who initially failed to report a traumatic event in service can nevertheless be successful on a claim for VA disability compensation for PTSD due to MST.
However, this relaxed standard of proof does not benefit MST survivors suffering from non-PTSD mental disorders, such as depression or generalized anxiety disorder. I see this as the next hurdle that the VA, advocates, and survivors need to tackle in our efforts to assist MST survivors.
This project has allowed me to be in contact with many veterans suffering from mental conditions as a result of being subjected to varying experiences of sexual trauma—all in need of my help. Working with these survivors has changed me and I am forever grateful for this opportunity to serve them.