Senate Bill Eases Burden for MST Victims Applying for VA Disability Benefits

Dealing with psychological issues arising from military sexual trauma (MST) continues to be a problem for the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Since sexual assaults are seldom reported, veterans who seek benefits for psychological injuries suffered as a result of MST often face an uphill struggle and may become bogged down in trying to obtain documentation that the assault occurred.

A Montana senator has introduced a bill to help veterans who suffered sexual assault while in the military and are now seeking benefits from the VA. The bill, called the Ruth Moore Act, is intended to ease the VA's standards that require vets to show that the disability for which they are seeking benefits was connected to their service.

Proving that a psychological disability was the direct result of a sexual assault while in the military can be challenging. In some instances, victims are strongly discouraged from making formal complaints or reports. Veterans report being harassed, demoted or assigned to less desirable jobs. While it is understandable that victims might prefer to not report assaults, not filing a complaint after an incident of sexual assault means that there is no paper trial.

The bill currently pending in the Senate changes the burden of proof, allowing the VA to service-connect the veteran's psychiatric condition if there is a medical diagnosis linking the condition to MST. In fact, unless there is evidence to the contrary, the bill will allow the VA to accept a veteran's testimony that a claimed sexual assault and trauma occurred. This will lessen the need to assemble documentation to prove than an incident occurred -- if such documentation even exists.

A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

Female veterans especially have faced significant challenges when seeking VA disability benefits for impairments stemming from sexual assault. In 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that detailed the challenges faced by survivors of military sexual trauma.

Although the percentage of claims awarded for PTSD resulting from sexual assault has increased over the years, the GAO found that approval of VA disability benefits claims based on MST varied enormously depending on where the veteran lived and submitted the claim. Since MST claims often involve subjective factors, the inherent biases and prejudices of those individuals deciding these claims have resulted in the variable and inconsistent adjudication reported by the GAO. Moreover, veterans' advocacy groups have argued that the burden of proof for PTSD and other psychological impairments resulting from MST is far greater than the proof required to support claims for PTSD resulting from other causes.

If the bill becomes law, it will certainly ease the burden for veterans applying for MST-related disability claims.