An attempt by Veterans Affairs officials this week to improve their outreach to military sexual misconduct victims left several of those victims retraumatized due to what they called an insensitive approach to the issue.
The incident — a town hall meeting via telephone in which women were cold-called and transferred into a conversation about sexual abuse with little warning — comes as the VA department’s leadership is embroiled in controversy over their own handling on a sexual assault claim at a VA medical center last year.
VA senior administrators, including Secretary Robert Wilkie, have insisted that improvements to the department in recent years have made programs more welcoming to women veterans and sexual assault survivors.
But Thursday’s event by the Veterans Benefits Administration — part of a series of outreach efforts on services and programs which began earlier this year — appears to undercut those claims. Advocates criticized the approach as poorly thought out and potentially harmful, rather than building positive connections with veterans.
Jenn Haskamp, a Marine Corps veteran who was contacted for the call, said she assumed she had missed a scheduled VA appointment when an automated call came in around dinner time on Thursday.
After a moment, she suddenly found herself listening to other military sexual trauma survivors talking about their struggles and VA officials commenting on ways department services could benefit them.
“I hung up, and vomited,” she said.
“Having military sexual trauma as part of my history is emotionally exhausting. I don’t walk into a room and introduce myself as a rape survivor, but it’s always there. It’s there in such a stifling way that I actively plan coping mechanisms for the times I need to talk about it.”
Haskamp said having the topic thrust upon her unexpectedly infuriated her, no matter what VA officials’ intentions were.
Lisa Wilken, chair of the AMVETS National Women Veterans Committee, was also among the veterans unexpectedly contacted for the call and had the same reaction. The Air Force veteran has testified before Congress in the past about problems with VA treatment of military sexual trauma survivors.
“As a rape survivor, I choose when I want to talk about my trauma,” she said. “So getting an unannounced call wasn’t appreciated at 5 p.m. when I had just started to get dinner started.
“As soon as the sharing started, I hung up because it wasn’t a good time for me to go in that head space. It was insensitive of them to do, even if they mean well. It shows me their efforts are for show and not even well meaning, due to lack of thought.”
Several other women veterans took to social media on Thursday night to express outrage over the perceived intrusion of their privacy and the VA’s lack of thought given to the potential harmful effects of the event.
In a statement, VA press secretary Christina Noel said department officials “apologize to anyone who this event may have upset” but said it was important to note that other veterans appeared to be helped by the event.
“The call resulted in nearly 1,500 veterans who submitted questions about their unique situations and who VA will contact about the benefits and services they may be eligible to receive,” she said. “We will be editing audio of the call to eliminate any parts people may find objectionable before we post it online.”
About 87,000 veterans participated in the event. She said that every participant was “first called, informed of the event’s focus and asked if they wanted to join the call.”
But veterans on the call said that they didn’t receive any information about it ahead of time, and the sudden call did not make clear that traumatic topics may be discussed.
“This isn’t an apology,” Wilken said “They lie and therefore take no responsibility.”
In the last week, 24 members of Congress (all Democrats) and 21 veterans groups (including the so-called “big six” traditional veterans service organizations) have called for Wilkie and other senior officials to resign from their department jobs, saying that they have lost faith in the VA officials’ ability to lead needed reforms to benefit women veterans.
The criticism stems from a VA inspector general report released Dec. 10 which criticized Wilkie for an “unprofessional” response to a September 2019 sexual assault report filed by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staffer Andrea Goldstein.
Wilkie promised an independent investigation into the incident, but investigators said he instead spearheaded an internal campaign to discredit Goldstein, believing her allegations to be a political stunt.
The inspector general’s report did not find criminal wrongdoing by senior VA officials, but said the behind-the-scenes conduct undermined department efforts to make VA a welcoming place for sexual misconduct survivors.
Wilkie has dismissed the IG’s findings as a political attack.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.