Late Breaking News
Congress Seeks an Easier Path to Benefits for Sexual-Assault Victims
By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation relaxing the evidentiary standards that must be met for veterans who file VA benefit claims for mental health conditions linked to military sexual trauma (MST).
The Ruth Moore Act of 2013 was passed by the House last month, and a similar measure was under consideration in the Senate. The goal of the legislation is to make it easier for veterans to receive service-connected benefits and treatment for mental health conditions linked to MST.
The bill is named after Ruth Moore, a veteran who testified in Congress about being raped twice while serving in the Navy. She said she fought for more than 20 years to receive appropriate benefits through the VA.
Advocates of the bill argue that most veterans are unable to meet the criteria used to obtain VA disability compensation benefits for sexual assault, and that the process needs to be revamped.
“Almost every day, we hear from another veteran who is fighting for their benefits and has been repeatedly turned down because they are being held to an unreasonably high standard of proof,” the bill’s sponsor Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) said in a written statement.
The ‘Threat’ of Sexual Assault
The legislation was under consideration amid a flurry of congressional activity aimed at addressing military sexual assaults. Data derived from a recently released report suggests that as many as 26,000 active duty troops in 2012 endured unwanted sexual contact. At the same time, DoD reported that in FY 2012, only 3,374 actual reports of sexual assaults were filed involving troops as victims or subjects — a number that suggests that many victims do not come forward.
DoD leaders talked openly about the threat that sexual assaults pose to the military.
Referring to military sexual assaults, Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month, “What gives me the greatest concern is the No. 1 problem in my people portfolio, and that is the threat we face from within our own ranks. He spoke at the 2013 Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium.
He and other military leaders vowed to better address the problem.“We are acting swiftly and deliberately to change a climate that has become a bit complacent,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told lawmakers during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.
“We know that lasting change begins with changing behaviors that can lead to sexual assault. Therefore, we are taking a comprehensive approach that focuses on prevention, victim advocacy, investigation, accountability and assessment.”Despite those reassurances, lawmakers indicated they remained concerned.
During that same hearing, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV) pointed out that sexual violence in the military is not a new problem and that after other prior incidents military leaders said “never again” or used phases such as “zero tolerance.”“So I guess I would ask, ‘What’s different this time? What’s different this time if we have a history of this repeating itself and nothing ever being done. What is different now?’” he asked.
Also referring to sexual assaults, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told the military leaders that a woman asked him if he would be able to give his “unqualified support” for her to send a daughter into the military, and he said that he “could not.”
“At its core, this is an issue of defending basic human rights. But it is also a long-term threat to the strength of our military, and we have to ask ourselves, ‘If left uncorrected, what impact will this problem have on recruitment and retention of qualified men and women?’” McCain said.
While military leaders vowed to step up their sexual assault prevention efforts, Congress was looking to legislative remedies to help tackle the problem, unveiling several pieces of legislation.
One bill would require a comprehensive review of the adequacy of the training, qualifications and experience of DoD personnel responsible for sexual-assault prevention and response in the military. Another bill would require an Inspector General investigation of allegations of retaliatory personnel actions taken in response to making protected communications regarding sexual assault. A third bill sought to establish a sexual-assault prevention and response office within each of the military service’s chief of staff office. The head of this office would report directly to the service chief of staff concerning the sexual-assault prevention and response program or programs of that service.
Perhaps the most controversial initiative under consideration was one that sought to reform the military justice system by removing the prosecution of all crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement from the chain of command, except for crimes that are uniquely military in nature.
“Our bipartisan bill takes this issue [sexual assault] head-on by removing decision-making from the chain of command and giving that discretion to experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience, where it belongs,” cosponsor Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said in a written statement. “That’s how we will achieve accountability, justice and fairness.”
DoD leaders have opposed removing those cases out of the military chain of command.“The commander’s ability to preserve good order and discipline remains essential to accomplishing any change within our profession. Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately, to accomplish the mission,” according to Dempsey’s written testimony.