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Bill: Help sex assault victims get VA benefits

Feb. 11, 2013 - 03:31PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 11, 2013 - 03:31PM  |  
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A bill that would make it easier for veterans to prove mental health problems are linked to sexual assault while in the military will be introduced Wednesday, named for a Navy veteran who says her two rapes in 1987 by the same supervisor left her homeless and depressed.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is called the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, named for a Maine veteran who faced a 23-year battle with the Veterans Affairs Department to have her mental health issues determined to be service-connected for benefits purposes.

Testifying last year before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Moore said she was raped twice in 1987 on her first overseas assignment by a supervisor and was discharged after suffering from depression, attempted suicide and treatment for a sexually transmitted disease she received during the rapes.

Moore said the Navy diagnosed her before her discharge with borderline personality disorder — often a cause for discharge because symptoms include trust issues, turbulent emotions and impulsive behavior — and when she applied for veterans' disability benefits after her discharge, she was denied. She applied several more times, and with the help of Disabled American Veterans and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., she now is rated as a 100 percent disabled veteran.

"This process took me 23 years to resolve, and I am one of the fortunate ones," she said. "If I had been treated promptly and received benefits in a timely manner back at the time of my discharge, my life would have been much different."

Part of Moore's problem in receiving disability benefits was the difficulty in proving her mental health issues were the result of sexual assault that occurred while she was in the military.

The Tester-Pingree bill tries to address that by changing the standard of proof so that official records are not required. Veterans who say they were victims of military-related sexual trauma would have their claim accepted if a mental health professional says their condition is consistent with sexual trauma and their claims are not rebutted by evidence. The draft legislation directs decisions to be resolved with "every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran."

Greg Jacob, policy director for Service Women's Action Network, said the bill fixes a problem with current regulations that "fail claimants who are survivors of military sexual trauma."

He called the Tester-Pingree bill "a powerful effort to correct a broken system."

Current VA rules permit a sexual assault victim to submit additional information that could corroborate a claim, but they do not require the information to be accepted as evidence, said Jacob, a Marine veteran.

"Since few sexual assaults are reported, a limited number of veterans … can submit any of the evidence prescribed in the regulation," Jacob said. "Our experience has also been that even when veterans submit the evidence outlined in the regulation, claims are still being denied."

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