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Honorable Chellie Pingree

Honorable Chellie Pingree

Thank you Chairman Runyan and Ranking Member McNerney for allowing me to participate in today’s hearing. I also want to thank you for holding this hearing—the topics covered today are extremely important, as the welfare of our veterans’ mental health and the disability and mental health system that cares for them should be one of Congress’s highest priorities.

Military sexual trauma continues to be a pervasive problem in our Armed Forces.  DoD data shows that roughly 19,000 reported assaults occur each year, and that approximately 85% of these assaults go unreported.  It happens to both men and women at increasingly high rates.

These attacks on our service men and women are occurring in the active duty ranks and even at the military academies—it is a disgrace that needs to stop now. I commend Defense Secretary Panetta for the changes he is making to DoD policy to prevent MST and prosecute these attackers, but more needs to be done.

Data shows that survivors of MST are very likely to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health conditions, leading many of these veterans to file claims with the VBA.  I commend the  Veterans Health Administration, which  has an “open door” policy, where MST survivors can get free treatment and counseling based on self reported MST.

While the VHA’s MST policy does what it can for MST victims, there is another side of the VA that in far too many cases fails MST survivors by producing roadblocks and bureaucratic red tape.  Countless MST survivors are so affected by the personal assault they experienced that they file PTSD claims with VBA, only to be denied service connection because they cannot prove the assault occurred.

Since most attacks go unreported, leaving no military documentation for victims to produce during the claims process with VBA.  VBA’s current policy states that they will be very liberal in deciding MST cases, and should accept “secondary markers” as proof the assault occurred—things like counseling reports for PTSD from MST, letters from family members citing behavioral changes, drug and alcohol abuse, etc…

On the surface it appears VBA’s policy gives veterans the benefit of the doubt and that VA understands current DOD shortcomings around MST, and common sense prevails when adjudicating these sensitive cases.  I would like to commend VBA under Secretary Allison Hickey for her commitment to MST survivors and the increased emphasis she has put on these types of claims while serving as VBA undersecretary.  

Unfortunately, however, I am of the opinion that the VA is just too big an agency for anything short of a regulation change to fix this problem.  No amount of training can ensure raters take the larger picture into account when reviewing these cases. VBA remains vastly inconsistent when deciding MST cases, and what one Regional Office accepts as a secondary marker, another might deny and still not be violating VBA policy. For instance, I have seen veterans denied service connection for lack of sufficient proof, even after they provided medical reports from in patient counseling for MST-related mental health conditions—at VA Medical Centers.

We have to be sure that VBA gives MST survivors the benefit of the doubt, especially when so many of these survivors have lost faith in the system they swore to uphold. That is why I introduced a bill that would provide service connection for MST survivors if they provide a diagnosis of PTSD and a medical nexus stating the PTSD is caused by the assault.

This language in this bill is very similar to the July 2010 change VBA implemented for veterans suffering from PTSD related to fear of hostile enemy action or terrorist activity. These veterans need only show a diagnosis of PTSD, a medical link and the claimed stressor must be consistent with the types of events consistent with military service.  Unfortunately, the data continues to show that sexual assault in the military is so pervasive that it is consistent with the types of events consistent with military service.  I want to thank Chairman Runyan for his support of the bill, as I know it would go along way to addressing the issues we continue to hear about from veterans and their families.

Let’s be clear.  The bad guys in these stories are the perpetrators.  They are the villains and the ones who should be held accountable.  But by creating a policy that denies justice to the victims and forces them to spend years or even decades fighting for the benefits they deserve, we are deepening the wounds for these veterans and making it all that much harder for them to get on with their lives.