Legislation aimed at helping survivors of military sexual assault get VA benefits for treatment passed unanimously in the US House on June 4.
Named for a Navy veteran who was raped and who fought 23 years for benefits after reporting the incident and being raped again in retaliation, the Ruth Moore Act, sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) would lower the burden of proof to receive benefits.
“Our bill specifically says if you suffered a sexual trauma basically you shouldn’t be denied the assistance that you need,” says Pingree. “It’s a fundamental promise we make to people who serve in the military. If you are damaged in any way, if you lose your eyesight or lose a leg, we take care of you and it should be no different if you suffer a trauma, whether it’s PTSD or a sexual trauma.”
Pingree said the Ruth Moore Act allows a statement from the survivor to be considered sufficient proof that the assault occurred rather than having to provide evidence from rape kits, statements from family members citing a change in behavior since military service and drug and alcohol abuse, which are currently required by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to receive benefits, according to Pingree.
“It’s very clear to us that as much as the VA says they want to help people who have survived a sexual trauma, it is still very hard to qualify for those benefits,” says Pingree.
The legislation follows a 2012 fiscal year report by the Defense Department that estimates that 26,000 service members experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in the year prior to being surveyed. That is up from 19,300, for fiscal year 2010.
According to the FY12 report, the military received a total of 3,374 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or subjects – that includes 2,949 service member victims of sexual assault. The total number of reports is up six percent from 3,192 reports made in the previous fiscal year.
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist who is an associate at Harvard University’s DuBois Institute and author of “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans,” says the spirit of the legislation is good, but there are some issues with it. “One is that the only route that they offer for people to get help and get help paid for is they have to agree to be diagnosed as mentally ill. Now if you are upset because you were sexually assaulted, that should not be classified as a mental illness and certainly you should not be required to agree to that designation in order to get help.”
She says being diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, depression or other psychiatric diagnoses from the DSM can carry with them risks such as losing custody of children, not getting or losing a job, high health care costs and being denied security clearance.
The “legislation calls these medical conditions,” Caplan says. “It is not a medical condition to be upset because you were raped. It’s a deeply human response.”
By Rivkela Brodsky