Veterans Affairs Office Decides To Trust Women About PTSD

A woman in the military is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. One in 5 women who seek veterans’ health care say they experienced sexual trauma during their service.

We’ve known these shocking statistics for years now. Less discussed is the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) afflicting many veterans who survive sexual violence: A startling study released yesterday found that 80 to 90 percent of New Mexican women veterans with PTSD say the cause was sexual assault, not warfare.

Despite this, victims of sexual violence have faced huge obstacles in securing military disability benefits, once required to submit proof the assault had occurred. But that may now be changing, thanks to yesterday’s revised policy from the Department of Veteran Affairs. After talks with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Secretary of Veteran Affairs General Allison Hickey announced that the agency will “ease [its] standards of proof” for sexual assault-related disability benefits.

Previously, a veteran suffering from sexual-assault-induced PTSD had to file an extensive paper trail–criminal reports, eyewitness accounts and medical records–in order to secure disability benefits. This was especially difficult because 4 out of 5 sexual assaults in the military go unreported (in the intensely hierarchical military, soldiers often fear the repercussions of reporting). No report means no immediate medical examination, making it near-impossible to later prove sexual assault.

Pingree introduced a bill in the House of Representatives in March asking the VA to ease barriers for sexual assault victims seeking disability benefits. She went on to hold meetings with Hickey to discuss administrative solutions, prompting the new rule change. On what spurred her advocacy, Pingree said:

I’ve heard the same story from far too many veterans. They were sexually assaulted while serving, but when they tried to get disability benefits it was too hard to prove the attack had occurred. Sometimes victims don’t report the incident because they don’t feel safe…but that shouldn’t be a reason for their benefits to be denied.

The rule change will shift the burden of proof from the victim to the VA office. Instead of requiring criminal reports and eyewitness accounts, VA offices will conduct personal interviews with the claimant, taking signs of mental distress and changes in behavior as proof of PTSD. They may also consider secondary evidence, such as a testimony from a family member or a journal entry about the incident. A claim of PTSD caused by sexual assault can be disproved only by “clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.”

The new rules mark another step in the U.S. government’s slowly improving stances on both sexual assault and trauma among service members. Until last year, the Department of Defense would only recognize PTSD that stemmed from direct enemy combat. Given that women are still technically barred from combat, though many are on the front lines, this meant that until 2010, women were largely excluded from receiving disability benefits.

While government policy is undoubtedly moving forward, there’s a long way to go. Government efforts to prevent sexual assault in the first place and prevent PTSD have been largely ineffective so far, with rates of sexual assault continuing to rise. We’ve known the statistics–yet it seems little has been done.

“I think the military would say they think they’re making progress,” Pingree said to a local NBC affliate. “We have to say, ‘Look, we have to keep pushing on this because you’re not making progress fast enough.'”

Photo from Flickr user expertinfantry licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Revision: This post has been updated correct the statistic on the number of veterans who have experienced sexual trauma in the military (it is not 1 in 3 women veterans, but 1 in 5 women who seek veterans’ health care.)


  1. pat jay says:

    You do not help this issue by misquoting the statistics. The report of sexual assault refers to WOMEN WHO SOUGHT ASSISTNACE FROM THE VETERANS ADMINISTRATION. It did not refer to one in three women serving in the military. There is a HUGE difference in the two statistics.

    If you are going to write about this issue please do the homework. Quoting a statistic that is so large and so inaccurate really makes it more difficult to deal with the real issues.

    The report that you have misquoted, now several years old, is available through the DOD web site that deals with sexual harassment and assault.

    One in three women seeking assistance from the Veterans Administration is far too many and represents a problem that has still not been effectively addressed by the military leadership and chain of command — in my opinion.

    Until the military treat assault a crime, which it is, and provide both support to the victim and speedy punishment to the perpetrator this issue will not be brought under control.

    • Jessica Stites says:

      Apologies for the error, Pat, and thank you for the correction. I’ve updated the post based on the statistics here:

      — Jessica Stites, Ms. Blog Editor

      • Small Sparrow says:

        Actual the 2003 paper by Sadler et al. reported 28% of female veterans contacted for the study reported experiencing rape. Not 1/3 but not 1/5 either and closer to the 1/3. They used VA patient rolls, any woman who served the required amount of time in uniform may enroll at the VA and it’s as good an estimate of military women as any other–retiree rolls would not include those who didn’t serve 20 years. Many other studies for military risk — for instance PTSD, suicide, alcohol abuse–use VA enrollment lists since it is a good approximation and easy to access. They mailed out and phoned for results, it wasn’t like they were hanging out in the Women’s Trauma Clinic for participants. Considering most who enlist are entering service with known risk factors to commit or be a victim of sexual assault, and the military culture of alcohol fuel misogyny intensifies the risk, 28% sounds about right, maybe a bit low.

  2. This is an incredibly insightful, well-researched piece. I’m grateful to Ms. Thompson for continuing to produce such compelling work about this pressing yet under reported issue.

  3. If you’re going to publish changes to policy, at least be accurate. The changes to this policy were published one year ago. If you do further research into this, you will see that it does not affect Vets with MST/PTSD. It only affects Vets who suffer from PTSD due to wartime/combat situations. There has been no relaxation of the rules for MST/PTSD claims. MST victims still have to prove what happened to them/us. It’s a long and humiliating process to say the least.

    Accuracy in reporting? Truth in reporting? Not in this story.

  4. Kathleen Clohessy says:

    Please clarify the truth here. Has the military made it less difficult to obtain disability benefits for women whosuffer PTSD due to rape or sexual assault or not? The article says “Yes;” the comment from Wendi Goodman says “Not True!” Ms. Goodman also says that the latest rule change was a year ago, which would make the story most decidedly not “news,” just outdated and inaccurate reporting.

    I hope that the author is right and that perhaps Ms. Goodman is not aware of more recent policy changes.

    On another note, as a civilian woman I simply do not understand why these women keep quiet about what happened to them. So what if the military doesn’t want to believe it? They will never be forced to confront their attitude and behavior if women refuse to come forward at the time of the attack to be photographed and examined. Are they saying that the military refuses to even collect rape kits and document evidence? If that is the case, then the civilian authorities need to be involved.

    I do not understand why a woman would want to join this group of misogynistic buffoons to begin with. But those who do should do so with all the facts. Hence, I thank the author for this information, however, horrifying it may be.

    • Antoin Dodson says:

      Why they keep quiet? Because they’ve already enlisted and don’t want to be punished by a military system that keeps them that will just punish them and prevent them from rising up if they make trouble, and don’t want to be investigated like they’re the ones in the wrong.

      And as for why they would “want to join,” probably for many reasons, from job opportunities to FREE COLLEGE.

      Try to think from other peoples perspective once in a while, Miss Katie.

      IM OUT

    • Small Sparrow says:

      We join because no one warns you it’s open season on women, or we believe the recruiter who says “that’s old news, it’s fixed now”–or for that matter the generals and Sec Defs who say that. We join to protect and serve our country and believe we will not be betrayed by our leaders and our government It’s not like you can just file a report and walk away. The military leaves you right there, working with or for the guy, or one of his good buddies . You can be overseas and single, family half-way around the world. You could be in a war zone. Filing a complaint only brings even more pain and pressure, that could last years before your time is up.

    • Well it shows that you are a “civilian” and of course haven’t been through (be blessed) it’s a horrible feeling to assaulted and even if something would be told, it would not have done anything in the matter. Miss KATHLEEN hope something like that never happens to you. And as for enlisting in the military, look in the mirror and thank the heavens you have your freedom. Oh wait your a civilian you wouldn’t know how to feel proud of that never mind. SMDH!!!!!!

  5. Glad to see that your including women in all this discussion it’s about time. Keep up the great work your doing!

  6. Stuart E. says:

    Eric Shenseki is the Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs. Allison Hickey is the Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs. Worthy topic; poor fact-checking.

  7. Mary Cook says:

    Ms Kathleen, There is a big difference between the way civilian society in relationship vs military women concerning. First I applaud every female military soldier past and present that were willing to put their life on the line for the freedoms that all Americans have today. I to am a Veteran that suffered the rape by a male that I thought was a friend. I didn’t report it because of the consequences against a women for being a tattle tale. “Blanket Parties”, a blanket is thrown over you so the people that are beating you up can not be seen can happen for turning these type of situations in as well as others. Once you say the oath to protect the US and obey the president then you do what you are told and keep your mouth shut when ordered. Some military men, like their civilan counterparts need to feel the power they can have over women. Some higher ups support women who have been raped and see they get the help they need while others feel women are in the military so support the males. Given what happened to me would not discourage my rejoining to protect this country.

    • I totally agree with you. I am now in my 50’s. Retired from the military. Went to a Veterans Outreach Center to get help. Thought I was having a nervous breakdown. After 2 mini strokes and now high blood pressure I am being treated for military sexual trauma and PTSD. They put a claim in for disability for me. Who knows what will happen but I never told because I would of been considered not one of the guys. Thanks for reading this

  8. Let’s support them by giving them works!

    Eco-Vets:We Will Hire Vets To Install Low Flush Toilets!
    A Vet can have a well paying job and 9000 gallons per year will be saved! We can hire Wounded Warriors too.

    Check this for more details..

  9. this is a great blog, thank you for keeping me posted!

  10. Thank you so much for the article! I am so grateful for you shedding light on this painful part of our world.

    I recently read a book called Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military about this subject. It is so hard to get that women are treated so badly in the 21st century, especially in the U.S. and especially while in service to their country. The fact that you commit to serve your country does not (or should not) mean that you no longer have the rights granted by the U.S. Constitution. Women warriors are not property and the righteousness of commanders justifying their right to protect rapists is almost impossible to grasp. Where is the honor? What if it were their wives, daughters, and granddaughters? Especially scary is the retaliation for reporting, where commanders and MPs refuse survivors medical treatment, make them shower to remove evidence, and/or interrogate them for weeks. It is truly disgusting that anyone would protect the structure that lets this happen so consistently.

    The book is painful and healing at the same time.

    Thank you again for your work!

  11. Duh…….It ain’t only the women who have suffered…..and it’s not only involves men violating women…..frequently used as a form of violent hazing such as gang style on one service member. In my experience, the women’s barracks was forced to remove each room’s doors. There was a brutal multiple female attack on a lone female using a broomstick.
    Frequently, perpetrators are transferred abruptly while victims continue to be blamed at their command and throughout the various offices, units, and situations that they pass through on their way to a mandated discharge – frequently without benefits & less than honorable!

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