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VIDEO: In Military Sexual Trauma Hearing, Pingree Speaks on Bill to Support Survivors

Washington, June 20, 2019

In a hearing for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Congresswoman Pingree spoke in support of her bill, H.R. 1092, The Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act. Pingree’s bill would improve resources and care for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST).

“Women and men who have experienced military sexual trauma contact my office seeking help as a desperate last resort because many of them found that someone refused to believe their story, or because the case was buried to protect the service’s reputation, or because benefits were denied because the law frankly hasn’t kept up with the science. Through hundreds of contacts from MST survivors from around the country, we have been haunted—and humbled—by the stories we have heard.” Pingree said in committee. “Many survivors have waited decades to tell the stories of their sexual assault while serving. They interpret denials as ‘the VA thinks I’m a liar.’ Of course, not every denial is in error, but these denials are traumatizing. Given the concern about veteran suicide, we must resolve the problem of inappropriate denials.”

To watch or download Pingree’s remarks in committee, click here

The Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act ensures that MST survivors diagnosed with mental health disorders other than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as anxiety and depression, will have the same relaxed standard of evidence for service connection as those with PTSD. It also codifies a lower burden of proof for showing that a MST event occurred and the ability to submit evidence of MST from sources other than a servicemember’s official record.

The Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act specifically references cyber abuse and harassment and requires the VA to have specially-trained adjudicators processing MST-related claims. In an effort to encourage more victims to come forward, the bill also requires military officials to educate service members about available VA care services for MST survivors at all VA healthcare facilities nationwide. Full text of H.R. 1092 is available here

A full transcript of Pingree’s testimony is as follows:

Thank you very much Madam Chairwoman and Congressman Bost, I apologize for being late- it’s hard when you have to be in two places at once and it’s a busy week as we all know- but thank you so much for the opportunity to participate in the hearing. Most importantly, thank you for focusing attention on proper compensation for those who suffered sexual trauma during the military service. 

I want to go back a little bit and talk about how I got to the point of submitting this particular piece of legislation. My experience on this issue goes back to my first years in Congress. Women and men who had experienced military sexual trauma (MST) came to my office seeking help as a desperate last resort because many of them found that someone refused to believe their story, or because the case was buried to protect the service’s reputation, or because benefits were denied because the law frankly hasn’t kept up with the science. 

Through hundreds of contacts from MST survivors from all over the country we have been haunted and humbled by the stories that we have heard. Let me just read one from someone who had contacted us: 

"Since being raped at my first Reserve duty station, I have lived off the grid, have not been able to work around people, cannot sustain any relationships, I don’t really go anywhere or have any friends, and I am filled with anxiety. Despite receiving VA counseling for PTSD, I was told by the examiner that I did not have PTSD so could not use my markers for service connection with the VA. I have waited over 20 years to tell anyone…I don’t know if I can go on."   

For this and many stories that we have heard, we have had the desire to finally pass legislation that would update VA policy.

Seven years ago-I have been here ten years- I sat with this Committee in a hearing on my bill related to MST. Studies had already found that PTSD claims following MST were granted at much lower rates than PTSD claims resulting from combat trauma-you’ve heard a little bit about that since I was able to come in- but with lower rates for men than for women. Plus, there was a different standard of evidence for PTSD claims based on combat versus sexual assault.  

As a result, the then VA agreed to create “dedicated, specialized MST claims processing teams within each VA regional office for exclusive handling of MST-related PTSD claims” with “specific training.” Further, at my request then, and after conceding that they had inappropriately denied many claims, VBA agreed to review denied MST claims for possible errors. 

But here we are, seven years later, here we are again. The Inspector General has reported that the VA has failed once again after abandoning claim specialization, training, and oversight. Nearly half of the veterans-and I know you’ve already heard this, this morning- who had submitted claims following MST had not even been provided the opportunity for an exam or they were inappropriately denied. We should feel a lot of anger and disappointed about not being able to fix this problem. 

I understand the pressure to reduce the claims backlog, but abandoning a long-awaited, more effective process for adjudicating claims following MST was unbelievably shortsighted. Many survivors have waited decades to tell the stories of their sexual assault while serving. They interpret denials as “the VA thinks I am a liar.” Of course, not every denial is an error, but these denials are traumatizing. Given the concern about veteran suicide, we must resolve the problem of inappropriate denials.

I am lucky enough to be a member of the MilCon VA, Subcommittee of the Appropriations, and at our hearing in March, I asked Secretary Wilkie what he was doing to ensure VA didn’t repeat this mistake. He said all the right things. But top officials come and go. So I think this falls on you, the career people. I know you acknowledged dropping the ball, and I want to hear not only how you are implementing the IG recommendations, but how you will foster cultural change in VBA.

Following a lawsuit almost two decades ago, the VA conceded that most survivors of sexual trauma would not have specific evidence in their military records. As a result, they created a relaxed evidentiary standard for PTSD claims following MST.  

This was a big leap forward, but it wasn’t sufficient. As the regulations were written, the relaxed standard does not apply to veterans diagnosed with other mental health disorders. Not every survivor develops PTSD.  

Today, we better understand the range of mental health disorders that sexual trauma can cause, including major depressive disorders or anxiety disorders as well as newly recognized trauma disorders as defined by the American Psychological Association, DSM-5. But despite the advancements in diagnosis and treating of mental health problems following sexual trauma, only survivors with PTSD can use evidence not in their personnel file for service connection. The VA has conceded that most veterans don’t tell -- so won’t have evidence in their files -- and this is the case regardless of their eventual diagnosis.

At that hearing in March, VBA Under Secretary Lawrence agreed on the need for a uniform standard. He said the VA couldn’t do it. It would take a change in the law.  

We have known this was a problem for a very long time. That is why I re-introduced 1092, the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act. The bill would add anxiety, depression, or other mental health diagnoses, in addition to PTSD, as conditions eligible to utilize secondary markers as evidence for service connection as a result of sexual trauma while serving. I am out of time, so I’ll stop there, but I know I’ve covered the ground, you know very well what I am talking about and addressing and we can’t let this stay the way it is. Thank you so much, Madam Chair.

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