Military sexual assault survivors face broken VA treatment system

U.S. soldiers from the NATO-led coalition force relax beside a basketball court as night falls at the Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, June 29, 2007.
U.S. soldiers from the NATO-led coalition force relax beside a basketball court as night falls at the Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, June 29, 2007.
Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Former Navy Petty Officer Third Class Brian Lewis had a clear answer when asked what he thought about the current Veterans’ Health Administration system for treating survivors of military sexual trauma: “I cannot in good conscience recommend VA to a survivor of military sexual assault at this time,” he told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Lewis and veterans of all branches of the United States military described to the committee Friday their nightmarish experiences of trying to get treatment for military sexual trauma, and while government representatives agreed changes need to be made, progress is likely to be slow.

After months of contentious debate over how to change the way the military handled the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault in the ranks, the three women and one man who spoke Friday morning detailed yet another obstacle course of bureaucratic quagmires, inadequate resources, and insensitive and inadequately trained health care providers. As Victoria Sanders, an Army veteran and registered nurse who was raped 38 years ago at age 20, VA treatment for her assault-related PTSD led to being “re-traumatized on many occasions.” The other survivors echoed this sentiment during the course of the hearing, which saw testimony from from survivors, representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department, and from VA facility doctors.

All four witnesses testified that they had difficulty finding adequate and compassionate health care, and that their interactions with VA employees supposedly dedicated to coordinating services for sexual assault victims were sporadic at best. Tara Johnson, a Marine Corps veteran who was raped twice during her time in the military, testified that when she finally tried to get treatment, she faced a more than four-month waiting list to get into an inpatient program. The VA drew harsh criticism earlier this year over its months-long backlog of veterans claims.

Related: When will it stop? Sexual assault claims pile up in military

Lewis, the former Navy petty officer who has become one of the most prominent voices for male survivors of military sexual trauma, was blunt in his assessment of VA health care services. The VA, he said, “fundamentally fails male survivors of military sexual trauma every day.” Of the 24 inpatient treatment facilities run by the Veterans Health Administration, only 12 are for survivors of military sexual trauma, and only one of those accepts male patients into its co-ed program. Lewis also testified that treatment for military sexual assault is often administered through women’s health clinics within the VHA. This “reinforces the concept that the VA sees [military sexual assault] as a women’s issue,” Lewis said, and does not account for the fact that the majority of victims, 14,000 of the estimated 26,000 last year alone, are men.

Representatives from VA health facilities said new practices are in the works that “should remedy” some of the issues brought up during the hearing. Rajiv Jain, a VHA official, responded directly to criticisms and suggestions put forward by Johnson and the other survivors. When asked by California Democrat Julia Brownley how to improve screening procedures to increase reporting, something Johnson singled out as a systemic flaw that kept her from reporting her assaults for years, Jain said the VA would, “look at our procedures for screening to see if there is a way that we could offer another chance to have the screening done in a simpler way.”

Doctors testified that for the survivors who report assault to their health care providers, seek treatment and enter programs, outcomes are often good. Dr. Jonathan Farrell-Higgins, who heads a stress disorder treatment program in Eastern Kansas, said that he would rate his program’s “customer service” as excellent and that patients there have expressed satisfaction.

Members of both parties pressed VA and DOD representatives spoke for information and explanations that none of the witnesses seemed to have readily available. Michael Shepherd, a physician in the VA inspector general’s office, was unable to answer a question from Rep. Benishek about the number of beds available in inpatient military sexual trauma treatment facilities. Agency witnesses testified that there were new initiatives being implemented and recommendations under review, but Indiana Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski was not satisfied by the remarks prepared by the doctors and officials. “We have thousands of people falling through the cracks,” Walorski said at one point, and “we can’t even get answer to the committee” on what policies are being implemented to better serve veterans in need of help.

Related: Senate set for battle over military sexual assault

Both the House and Senate have taken up multiple bills designed to increase the reporting of incidents of sexual assault and to improve the toxic culture that is responsible for the thousands of instances of unwanted sexual contact last year. Last month the House passed a bill that would strengthen whistleblower protections for individuals who report sexual assault, and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand continues to fight for her bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would remove sexual assault prosecutions from the chain of command.

Advocates for military sexual assault survivors support an overhaul of the system to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to receive treatment and reduce the burden of proof so many survivors must meet before seeing their cases handled seriously. “Due to the massive underreporting of military sexual assault, the abysmal prosecution rates, and the frequent mishandling of investigations, service members suffering from MST are often left with little tangible proof of their attacks,” Miranda Petersen, policy director of Protect Our Defenders, told msnbc. “There is no reason the burden of proof for PTSD should be greater simply because an individual was the victim of sexual violence.”

California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who introduced a House bill similar to Gillibrand’s, asked four survivors at Friday’s hearing how many of them supported removing prosecution from the chain of command, all four immediately raised their hands.

Related: Sexual assault epidemic exposes shortfalls in military proposals