Witness Testimony of The Honorable Chellie Pingree, U.S. House of Representatives
Thank you Chairman Runyan and Ranking Member Titus for having me here today and for considering the Ruth Moore Act in this afternoon’s legislative hearing. I appreciate the opportunity to talk more about this bill and why I think we desperately need it to become law.
This legislation has been endorsed by the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Service Women’s Action Network, Military Officers Association of America, the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, and the Fleet Reserve Association. We appreciate their support and all the work they do for veterans.
The Ruth Moore Act would relax the evidentiary standards for survivors of military sexual trauma who file claims for mental health conditions with the VA. Currently, MST survivors need further proof of the assault—which for many of them is impossible. Under this bill, in order to receive service connected benefits, a veteran would have to provide a statement that the assault took place; along with a diagnosis from a VA health care professional that links the assault to a mental health condition.
This bill also requires the VA to report MST related claims information back to Congress, such as the number of denied and approved MST claims each year, and the reasons for denial. As members of Congress, we have a responsibility to ensure that the VA is providing timely and accurate decisions to veterans, but we cannot do that without sufficient data.
This bill is closely modeled after the 2010 change in VA regulations for combat veterans who have filed PTSD claims based on their military service.
As you know, in 2010, the VA relaxed the evidentiary standards for veterans who suffer from combat related PTSD. The VA finally acknowledged that far too many veterans who have deployed into harm’s way suffered the emotional consequences of their service but could not, through no fault of their own, locate military documentation that verified the traumatic events that triggered their PTSD.
The VA now accepts their statement of traumatic events, along with a PTSD diagnosis and a medical link, as enough to receive disability benefits.
So what we have is an inequity in the system, and those with a combat related mental health condition have an easier path to benefits than those who were raped or sexually harassed—even though both are service connected injuries and the same standards should apply.
Ruth Moore, who this bill is named for, is a US Navy veteran from Maine who was raped twice during her military service. When she reported it, she was discharged and labeled as having a personality disorder. She spent over 23 years fighting the VA to get disability benefits, and she battled homelessness and PTSD during that time.
Ruth, like many MST survivors, did not have military records that corroborated the rape, so her claim was repeatedly denied. Unfortunately, she is not alone: DoD’s own numbers indicate that over 85% of assaults go unreported. So I ask you, how are these veterans supposed to qualify for the help they need from the VA?
The VA will tell you that their system accepts “secondary markers” as evidence to verify an assault occurred—and as comforting as that sounds, we’ve seen time and time again that the VA is vastly inconsistent in applying those standards. What one Regional office will accept as proof another will deny. Almost every day I hear from another MST survivor who has had their claim denied after these secondary markers were ignored.
This is a problem of fundamental fairness: If a medical diagnosis and link to a claimed event is enough for one group of veterans, it ought to be enough for another. Especially when we know how prevalent sexual assault in the military is and how hard it is for documentation to exist to support these instances of assault.
Critics of this legislation might say that it makes it too easy to get benefits and veterans could just say anything to get those benefits. First of all, that’s simply not true. There still needs to be a medical diagnosis and medical link, which are not at all easy to come by. And secondly, we heard that same argument when the VA proposed a similar change for combat veterans, and I haven’t heard the VA say they’ve had big problems with veterans lying about their service.
The bottom line is that for too long the burden of proof has been on the veteran—and that needs to change now.
Mr. Chairman, over the last two years I have heard from dozens and dozens of veterans from all over the country. Men and women who volunteered to serve their country, many of them planning on a career in the military, only to have that career cut short by the horror of a violent, sexual assault.
Whether the attack happened on a Navy base in Europe or at a National Guard training facility here in the U.S., whether they were soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines, the story too often has the same ending: The victims were blamed, the crime was covered up, and the survivors themselves became the subject of further harassment and recrimination. And too often, what followed was years of mental health issues, lost jobs, substance abuse and homelessness.
These stories don’t have to end this way. With the Ruth Moore Act, we can change the VA's policy so veterans who survive a sexual assault can at least get the benefits they deserve.
Again, thank you Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Titus and members of the committee for considering this legislation. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.