Thousands of female veterans are struggling to get health-care treatment and compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs on the grounds that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual trauma in the military. The veterans and their advocates call it “the second battle” — with a bureaucracy they say is stuck in the past.
Judy Atwood-Bell was just a 19-year-old Army private when she says she was locked inside a barracks room at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, forced to the cold floor and raped by a fellow solider.
For more than two decades, Atwood-Bell fought for an apology and financial compensation from VA for PTSD, with panic attacks, insomnia and severe depression that she recalls started soon after that winter day in 1981. She filled out stacks of forms in triplicate and then filled them out again, pressing over and over for recognition of the harm that was done.
The department labels it “military sexual trauma” (MST), covering any unwanted contact, including sexual innuendo, groping and rape.
A recent VA survey found that 1 in 4 women said they experienced sexual harassment or assault. And the problem is growing more pressing because female veterans represent the military’s fastest-growing population, with an estimated 2.2 million, or 10 percent, of the country’s veterans. More than 280,000 female veterans have returned home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About two weeks ago, when Atwood-Bell checked the department’s Web site, as she does every day, she was stunned to discover that the agency had accepted her claim for compensation.
“It’s taken over 20 years, and that should’ve never happened,” said Atwood-Bell, who retired as a sergeant first class and lives in New Hampshire, her voice cracking with emotion. “My fight is not over. It’s not done for so many other women out there. I want to help them to get what we are entitled to.”
The Pentagon has been conducting a high-profile campaign to prevent sexual attacks and punish offenders amid concerns that defense officials neglected these assaults for years.
But advocacy groups say VA has been slow to adjust to the rising number of women in the military.
Some health centers, for instance, only recently opened female restrooms. Women who go to VA centers for treatment say they are routinely asked whether they are waiting for their husbands or are lost. And while there are a few showcase centers for female veterans, a third of VA medical centers lack a gynecologist on staff, according to a report by Disabled American Veterans, or DAV. Thirty-one percent of VA clinics lack staff to provide adequate treatment for sexual assault, according to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine.
Female veterans, in part, are pressing for more VA centers that specifically treat military sexual trauma, with separate waiting rooms for women and child care.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald says the department is taking steps to improve health services to address sexual trauma, such as asking all veterans during intake whether they suffered such an assault or trauma and hiring more doctors, therapists and social workers with experience in issues of sexual assault in the military. The agency also says it is increasing the staff responsible for promoting VA benefits to women veterans and helping them with claims, especially those involving sexual abuse.
This month, the department announced it would expand mental health services to reservists and National Guard members who were sexually assaulted while on inactive duty.
“VA simply must be an organization that provides comprehensive care for all veterans dealing with the effects of military sexual trauma,” McDonald said. “Our range of services for MST-related experiences are constantly being reexamined to best meet the needs of our veterans.”
This year, it became easier for survivors of sexual trauma to get treatment because the government ended the requirement that military members produce proof that they were assaulted or harassed before they get health care.
But advocates say thousands of female veterans confront an even larger problem: They are unable to get disability compensation benefits for sexual trauma because they do not have enough paperwork to support their claims. Advocacy groups and VA officials blame a culture of secrecy and denial inside the military that heavily discourages women from reporting sexual assault.
VA officials said that they are encouraging female veterans to reapply for benefits for PTSD caused by sexual abuse and that they are re-reviewing cases.
Elena M. Giordano says she was raped about 10 years ago by two men on separate occasions while serving aboard a Navy aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean as an airman apprentice. When she reported the attacks, she says, Giordano was discharged with “pre-existing personality disorder,” a label that advocates say is often applied by military officers to women who report rape.