Everyone who enlists in the United States armed forces knows that service carries a certain level of risk. However, few expect threats to come from within their own ranks. Despite years of reform and policy change, the American military has struggled to keep its servicemen and women safe from sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has long recognized that military sexual assault (MST) can cause immense suffering and intense psychological trauma. Unfortunately, the VA doesn’t recognize MST as a disability, but it provides benefits for a wide range of MST-related conditions.
Attorney Sean Kendall has spent decades advocating for the rights of our veterans. Our experienced legal team could help you or a loved one file an MST-related disability claim with the VA, fighting to ensure you receive the care and the compassion you deserve.
The VA and Military Sexual Trauma
The VA uses the term “military sexual trauma,” or MST, to refer to any incidences of sexual assault or sexual harassment that occur during military service. This definition is intentionally broad and encompasses most non-consensual sexual activities. Here are just a few examples of military sexual trauma:
- An individual is pressured into sexual activities in exchange for a promotion, pay increase, or other benefits.
- Someone coerced into performing a sexual act under threat of retaliation.
- A person assaulted while sleeping, intoxicated, or otherwise unable to provide consent.
- Being touched inappropriately, including as part of “hazing” rituals.
- Someone sexually harassed by a superior or a colleague, whether through demeaning remarks or suggestive comments.
MST can refer to many different experiences, from violent sexual assault to recurring verbal harassment. However, MST—regardless of its degree—almost always impacts former and activity-duty servicepeople in vastly different ways, many of which aren’t always noticeable.
Long-Term Effects of MST
Military sexual trauma can affect anyone in the armed forces, regardless of age, gender, or rank. Unlike other service-connected disabilities, MST isn’t an official medical diagnosis. Instead, it’s often interpreted and treated through its symptoms. Here are the most common signs of MST reported by the VA:
- Feelings of depression, sadness, or isolation
- Substance abuse, including the problematic consumption of alcohol or other drugs
- Difficulties processing emotions or controlling your anger
- Insomnia, or an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
Some military sexual assault survivors have also reported experiencing serious physical health effects. For example, studies report that sexual survivors are more likely to develop high blood pressure than people who have never been abused, increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease and other organ-related problems.
However, even veterans who don’t report physical symptoms still struggle to overcome the long-term mental health effects of MST.
The Physical and Mental Health Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma
The VA offers veterans who experienced military sexual trauma free counseling and other mental health services. However, the department doesn’t currently classify MST as a service-connected disability. As such, military sexual trauma survivors aren’t always entitled to receive disability-related benefits.
Despite these limitations, servicepeople who experience MST-related symptoms—such as insomnia, depression, or trauma-related flashbacks—could be diagnosed with a rated service-connected condition. The VA offers disability benefits for servicepeople diagnosed with the following types of MST-related disabilities.
Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a common and serious medical condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, and acts. The condition could include some or all of the following symptoms:
- Feeling sad
- Losing interest in activities that you once enjoyed
- Sleep too much, or sleeping too little
- Difficulty concentrating or making informed decisions
- Thinking about death or suicide
Depression impacts survivors’ mental and physical health in various ways. For instance, researchers found that a significant percentage of sexual assault survivors struggle with substance abuse and have considered committing suicide at least once.
A 2018 report in the Defense Health Agency’s Medical Surveillance Report suggested that eating disorder diagnoses among veterans are on the rise. Eating disorders are typically characterized by extreme attitudes and behaviors relating to the consumption of food and beverages. Similar to other mental health disabilities, eating disorders can be complex in that they don’t always have a single underlying cause.
Common MST-related eating disorders include but aren’t limited to:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder
The VA can accord certain eating disorders with disability ratings provided the claimant demonstrates that their disability has a compelling service connection.
Sexual abuse that is physically coercive or violent can trigger chronic pain in survivors. This pain is sometimes the result of a brutal assault or a post-traumatic response to an event that many people simply cannot process. Chronic pain is also closely associated with other service-connected conditions, including insomnia, depression, and PTSD.
The VA usually awards disability ratings that match how the pain has affected a veteran’s capacity to perform everyday tasks and hold down a steady job.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic medical condition that causes pain throughout the body, as well as general fatigue and difficulty sleeping. Nobody understands the exact causes of fibromyalgia, but scientists believe it’s linked to stressful and traumatic events, including sexual assault.
The VA usually rates fibromyalgia claims at 10 percent, 20 percent, or 40 percent. However, if an MST survivor is diagnosed with other service-connected conditions, these additional ratings can be combined to 100 percent.
Sexual and physical abuse are both linked to the emergence of serious and long-lasting gastrointestinal problems, including irritable bowel syndrome.
Like other MST-related diagnoses, servicepeople who began experiencing gastrointestinal problems after surviving military sexual trauma could be entitled to certain benefits. The ratings for different gastrointestinal disorders vary in accordance with the severity of symptoms and their impact on the serviceperson’s daily life. Under most circumstances, a military sexual trauma survivor has to show that an MST incident was the most likely cause of otherwise inexplicable gastrointestinal problems.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a serious mental health condition closely associated with both military service and military sexual trauma. Symptoms of PTSD include, but aren’t limited to:
- Severe anxiety
- Obsessive or otherwise uncontrollable thoughts about the event
The VA understands that, even without physical injuries, PTSD can be debilitating. Disability ratings vary, but they can range up to 100 percent.
Fighting for Your Right to Benefits for Military Sexual Trauma
The Department of Veterans Affairs is charged with ensuring that American heroes receive the care they need and the benefits they deserve, both during service and after its completion. This care could include the complimentary treatment of diagnosed disorders, as well as the disbursement of disability payments.
However, the VA is notorious for its borderline-byzantine bureaucracy. Legislators have spent years trying to streamline the agency’s claims processes and appeals systems, yet complaints remain common. While you don’t need an attorney to apply for VA disability benefits, an experienced VA disability lawyer could help improve your chances of obtaining compensation by:
- Ensuring that you submit the right paperwork for your VA claim.
- Proactively collecting evidence to support your diagnosis and establish a clear-cut service connection.
- Providing personal advice on substantiating your claim through individual affidavits and third-party testimony.
- Responding to demands for additional evidence.
- Appealing adverse determinations.