Amid reports that nude photos of dozens of female service members were shared online without their consent, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is joining Senators Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in introducing a bill (H.R. 1954) to ensure that veterans who have been the victims of sexual harassment online have access to counseling and benefits.
Building on Pingree’s long record of advocacy on the issue, the Service Member and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act makes several other changes to ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides appropriate care and benefits for survivors of military sexual trauma.
“Tragically, military sexual trauma not only remains a reality but has taken on new forms, as we saw with the recent cyber harassment against dozens of female service members on Facebook,” said Pingree. “While we should do everything in our power to prevent these crimes and hold perpetrators accountable, we also need to ensure that their victims receive the benefits they need and have earned. Anything less is a double injustice to the men and women who suffered while serving our country and carry those wounds for the rest of their lives.”
Bill widens eligibility and access to services
The legislation will allow service members and veterans who have experienced online sexual harassment to access VA counseling and benefits. Victims of cyber sexual harassment are not currently eligible for these services.
The bill will also turn into law VA policies that increased the number of ways veterans could prove their sexual assault or harassment when submitting claims for related Post-Traumatic Stress, and will expand these standards of evidence to include any mental health disorder resulting from sexual violence.
Additionally, in an effort to encourage more victims to come forward, the bill requires military officials to educate service members about VA services for military sexual trauma survivors.
“The recent Marine Corps online nude photo sharing scandal solidifies the need to clarify acts of abuse, harassment, and sexual violence and to ensure victims’ access to care is not obstructed,” said Terry Moore, a longtime Maine veteran advocate and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. “This act is the survivor's ‘bridge to care.’ Chellie Pingree's resolute commitment to push for these much needed VA and DOD policies to prevent these horrific acts from happening, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure survivors get the care and benefits they deserve is much appreciated.”
Pingree has been dogged in her long fight for survivors to more quickly and fairly access benefits that allow them to move on with their lives. In late 2016, a provision of legislation she introduced with Tester—the Ruth Moore Act, named after Mainer Ruth Moore—was passed in a Veterans Omnibus package. The provision ensured more transparency in the VA claims process by requiring the agency to make regular reports on how many benefit claims for military sexual trauma it received, how many it denied, and reasons for denial.