I have practiced veterans law for many years now, and I can say one thing that I did not know about before I entered this field was the prevalence of sexual assault in the military. According to a recent lawsuit filed by two veterans’ groups, nearly a third of women are raped during service to this country, and nearly half experience unwanted sexual contact. The lawsuit further shows that 52% of those service members reporting unwanted sexual contact in 2011-2012 were men. These figures are simply shocking.
VA Benefits for PTSD Caused by Sexual Assault
PTSD and military sexual assault may be connected because many survivors of rape or other sexual assault experience long-term psychological consequences. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common amongst these survivors. Veterans who suffer from PTSD as a result of an in-service sexual assault are able to collect disability benefits for their disability, if they can convince VA adjudicators that the assault actually occurred and that they have a PTSD diagnosis and the stressor event that caused the PTSD is the in-service sexual assault.
The problem is that it can be extremely difficult for veterans to prove that a sexual assault actually occurred. In many cases, and for many reasons, assaults are not immediately reported. Sometimes they are not reported for years or even decades. Recognizing this, VA has enacted regulations requiring adjudicators to take an extra hard look at certain kinds of evidence, including lay evidence (meaning, in many cases, the veteran’s self-report of the incident) and reports indicating that the veteran’s performance suffered after the purported assault. But the truth is the VA is always required to examine this kind of evidence in determining whether an in-service injury or event occurred, whether the claim is for an ankle injury based on a fall, a back injury based on a motor vehicle accident, or PTSD based on an in-service assault. In fact, VA is always required to consider all the evidence in the veteran’s file when evaluating a claim.
VA would do right by a lot of suffering veterans by amending its sexual assault regulations so that they look like PTSD regulations that concern veterans whose PTSD is related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity. In those cases, VA will generally presume that the stressor event occurred even if there is no hard evidence of it occurring, so long as a VA psychologist confirms that the stressor can support a PTSD diagnosis and the veteran’s symptoms are related to that stressor. Obviously, this means veterans don’t have to complete the often impossible task of collecting objective evidence that verifies a purported stressor. Given the difficulties of confirming that a sexual assault occurred that I described above, it would make sense to have a similar regulation for PTSD sexual assault cases.