Marine Corps veteran Tara Johnson says she lost faith in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after one of its health-care providers questioned whether she had been sexually assaulted.
“The provider looked at me, widened his eyes and asked, ‘Well, do you really think you were raped?’” Johnson, 40, said at a congressional hearing yesterday. “I could not bring myself to return to him or the VA.”
Johnson, who left the Marine Corps in 2010 as a major, and other veterans told lawmakers that the VA’s medical staff isn’t recognizing signs of sexual abuse in former troops and hasn’t been properly treating victims.
The House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee hearing was held two months after the Defense Department released a survey that found military sexual assaults had increased 35 percent in two years. Those health-care issues and others are increasingly shifting to the VA as more troops return from war.
The victims who testified yesterday said they believed veterans who have been sexually abused should be treated outside the department because of problems accessing proper care and long waits for VA programs.
While public and political attention has focused on men in uniform abusing women, the military’s confidential survey of active-duty troops found that more victims of sexual assault and harassment in the military are male, largely because men make up about 85 percent of the total force.
Veteran Brian Lewis, a Navy petty officer third class who said he was raped at knife point, told the subcommittee that the VA is so “fundamentally incapable of providing care” for sexual trauma that some male victims use VA clinics for women.
“This is not best practice. This is horrible practice,” Lewis said during the hearing. “I also deserve to have my manhood, in essence, respected by not having to seek treatment in a women’s clinic.”
Rajiv Jain, the VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for patient care, said at the hearing that the department needs to take a “critical look” at its services for sexual trauma victims.
“They really present a very powerful story,” Jain said of the veterans who described their struggles getting VA treatment. “We also feel there are significant gaps that have been pointed out by the panel and that we need to really look and see how best we can meet the needs of all our veterans in a sensitive manner.”
The VA provided more than 85,000 veterans with care related to military sexual trauma in the year that ended Sept. 30, Jain said in written testimony submitted to the committee. That’s an increase of almost 11 percent from the prior year, according to Jain’s prepared testimony.
In May, the Defense Department estimated 26,000 military personnel may have experienced unwanted sexual contact last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports.
The same month, three military officers assigned to programs to prevent sexual abuse were removed from their posts after allegations of wrongdoing.
Lawmakers led by women in the House of Representatives and Senate are demanding changes in how the Pentagon treats reports of sexual trauma and questioning whether the VA is equipped to care for victims.
“I want to personally apologize to all of you,” U.S. Representative Julia Brownley, a California Democrat, said during the hearing. “If there is trauma that takes place, then as a veteran who has served our country we need to figure out how to best provide and service all of you.”
Senators Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont who leads the Senate veterans committee, and Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, urged the VA in a letter last month to improve the way it processes post-traumatic stress disorder claims from veterans tied to sexual trauma.
Agency officials sent letters to veterans this year advising them they could ask the department to reconsider previously denied claims for disability payments tied to military sex abuse.
The VA didn’t work with veterans groups on the letter or include contact information for the offices that would handle requests for additional review of previously denied claims, according to the letter.
Veterans who’ve had post-traumatic stress disorder claims tied to sexual trauma denied by the agency “may be hesitant to trust VA to review their claims without reassurance that VA will undertake a more comprehensive, practical and sensitive approach,” according to the letter from Tester and Sanders.
Johnson says she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after she was sexually assaulted several times during her military service -- including when she was an officer candidate.
“I don’t remember much of it,” she said during the hearing. “But if someone comes too close to me or I feel that someone invades my personal space or I smell a certain kind of smell, I become so agitated and scared to the point where I can’t function and I feel like I’m going to throw up.”