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Witness Testimony of Marlene Roll, Member, National Women Veterans Committee, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

MADAM CHAIRWOMAN AND MEMBERS OF THIS COMMITTEE:

On behalf of the 2.1 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and our Auxiliaries, I thank you for this opportunity to share our views on this exceedingly important topic. 

The June 7 GAO report, entitled “VA Health Care: Actions Needed to Prevent Sexual Assaults and Other Safety Incidents,” doesn’t provide enough detail to fully grasp the depth of this problem, but there are some things we do know: One incident of assault, of a sexual nature or otherwise, is one too many.  We also know that interested parties – Veterans, VA, Congress, VSOs, and the American people – cannot look the other way once we know this is occurring.  Thanks to the GAO, we now know it’s happening at VA.  

Sexual assault is among the most serious of problems an individual or any organization—especially one in the service industry like the VA Health Administration—could ever confront.  VA must immediately work to address this problem head on. 

The VFW affirms, in no uncertain terms, the need for a zero-tolerance policy.  Less than that is unacceptable and inexcusable.

Every confirmed instance of sexual assault must be dealt with swiftly and to the maximum extent of the law.  VA employees and veterans who commit or know of these acts must be held accountable. We entrust VA to care for the brave men and women who have gone to war and returned home physically and/or emotionally traumatized.  They must never have to visit a VA medical facility with concerns about their personal safety. 

The allegations in the GAO report are as troubling as they are unacceptable.  The report makes it sound as if VHA has a culture of condoning this type of behavior, which we believe is not the case.   But what is the case is that the facilities and networks visited by GAO have a severe problem that we can only hope is not system-wide. 

VA must swiftly address the many problems identified by the GAO in its report.  They must also clarify what constitutes sexual assault, because the lack of a clear, consistent, VA-wide definition has allegedly led to many events not being reported or resulted in no action on those events that were reported.  This is an appalling abdication of a solemn responsibility, and it must stop immediately.  VA must standardize the type of information that will be recorded as well as the type of incidents that will be immediately reported to the VA Central Office and/or to local law enforcement officials.  This will help ensure every incident is properly documented, which will lead to more thorough investigations, and hopefully help prevent similar incidents from occurring at other facilities.  This is a zero tolerance issue in the military world and in the civilian world; it must be so in the VA world, too.  Only quick and decisive action will restore public confidence in the VA.

GAO also recommended VA police create a system-wide process that would result in cases involving potential felonies to be automatically reported to the VA Office of the Inspector General.  Frankly, we are shocked that such a common-sense Standard Operating Procedure doesn’t already exist. 

Another critical suggestion by GAO—implementing a centralized tracking mechanism for VHA Central Office personnel — speaks volumes about the failure of leadership at many levels to understand the importance of this issue and respond appropriately. 

The most important issue that we believe is missing is the lack of a comprehensive and continuous training program.  All efforts to properly identify sexual assault and to create programs to forward allegations to appropriate officials are in vain if employees aren’t trained to be vigilant and to identify problem situations.  We strongly believe that VA must institute an ongoing training program that is informative, that encourages people to report what they believe is inappropriate, and that is mandatory for all VA employees to attend. 

Today, VA is caring for an ever-increasing caseload of women veterans.  It is imperative that women come to VA for the care they have earned and when they need it.  Establishing and maintaining trust is an essential ingredient in making sure that happens.  Anything less than immediate and comprehensive action to remedy this situation could set VA back in the proper care of our deserving women veterans. 

Total leadership is essential from everyone in VA.  Secretary Shinseki and his Senior Executive staff are sincerely involved, and the VFW knows they will do everything within their power to end sexual assaults in the VA workplace.  Yet the solution to stamping out this problem is not in Washington; the solution is in the field in every Network Director, Medical Center Director, Clinic Director, and their senior staffs, frontline supervisors and in every employee.  The GAO report identifies a shared problem that reflects upon the integrity of the entire VA.  Its eradication can only lie in a total commitment by those very same employees at every level.

We thank Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Buerkle and Chairman Miller for introducing H.R. 2074, the “Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act,” to fix this fractious and ineffective policy by establishing in law a comprehensive policy on reporting, tracking, and investigating claims of inappropriate sexual and other safety incidents.  VA leadership has failed in their obligations for too long, and the hidden nature of this unacceptable problem requires Congress to act quickly. 

We want the guilty punished, but we also strongly believe that any legislation signed into law should specifically direct VA to ensure exonerated employees are not indirectly punished professionally.  They have the most to lose if allegations are not handled properly.  The VFW does not want to see dedicated employees leave the VA system for this reason, so any successful cultural change within VA must include protections for innocent employees wrongfully accused.  VA must recognize this and be prepared to responsibly handle allegations that are proven to be false. 

We greatly appreciate the importance this Committee places on this issue, and we hope that you will continue to provide the necessary oversight to ensure VA responds aggressively to address our concerns. 

Information Required by Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives

Pursuant to Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives, VFW has not received any federal grants in Fiscal Year 2011, nor has it received any federal grants in the two previous Fiscal Years.