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Military Sexual Trauma Program Success Stories

Diane

When Diane joined the military, she wanted to answer her country’s call and serve our great nation. She advanced through the ranks and soon became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. She served multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan alongside her peers, working to support the U.S. mission.

But then the unthinkable happened. She was attacked and raped by someone she worked with, who was also in her unit. She reported the assault up the chain of command. She was blamed for the assault, and struggled to work in a hostile environment where she saw her rapist every day. The physical injuries from the assault healed. But the post-traumatic stress caused by the rape stayed with her and made it difficult to function. She was told she couldn’t stay in the military any longer and was given a general discharge. Her military career – which had been on a fast track to success before the assault – was over.

Without an honorable discharge, she didn’t have benefits to help her rebuild a life that was completely shattered. Her life entered a downward spiral, and soon she was homeless. She tried to apply for disability benefits but her claim was not granted. Her military training though – stuck – Diane organized every file, every scrap of paper related to her VA claim in a series of folders, hoping that somehow, this could all work out.

When staff from the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) met Diane at an outreach event for veterans organized by the American Legion, she was rail thin, homeless and carrying her neatly organized paperwork. After reviewing her documents and hearing her story, NVLSP Joint Executive Director and veteran’s benefits expert Ron Abrams knew Diane had been wrongfully treated and could see that her VA claim for disability benefits should have been approved. On the spot, he worked with VA staff on site to grant her disability benefits she was owed and worked out the paperwork snafus that had entangled her case. Later, Diane was able to apply for a discharge upgrade and get the honorable discharge she deserved.

Today, Diane is no longer homeless. She has her own apartment, is getting treatment for post-traumatic stress, and pursuing a graduate degree in Social Work at the University of Southern California so she can help other survivors of sexual assault.

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Ms. W

Ms. W enlisted in the Army as a high school graduate in the 1980s, with hopes of one day becoming an Army officer. During her military training, she was forcibly raped several times by a senior leader in her direct chain of command. Her assailant intimidated Ms. W with the threat of an unfavorable discharge if she ever reported the assaults, and Ms. W believed these threats. The assaults left Ms. W with long-term trauma, and she has experienced severe mental health symptoms ever since. In 2011, after receiving counseling for PTSD, Ms. W filed a claim for service connection for her mental symptoms. Unfortunately, the VA denied her claim for PTSD because there was no evidence to support the occurrence of the assaults.

At this point, Ms. W requested assistance from NVLSP's MST program and NVLSP placed her case with a group of attorneys at Kirkland & Ellis. Under the guidance of NVLSP's Joint Executive Director, Ron Abrams, and the MST mentoring attorney, Tiffany Kelley, the Kirkland & Ellis attorneys worked with Ms. W to highlight evidence that indicated that the MST actually occurred, obtained a private medical examination and nexus opinion that provided an in-depth evaluation of Ms. W's condition, and interviewed lay witnesses that provided statements in support of Ms. W's claim. Additionally, these attorneys drafted a brief outlining the new evidence and attended a hearing at the VA Regional Office on her behalf.

Because of the assistance provided to Ms. W. through NVLSP's MST program, the VA reversed the prior denial and granted service connection for PTSD with major depressive disorder effective December 2013.

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Justice Served

In 2010, NVLSP represented a veteran before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) in his appeal of the Board of Veterans' Appeals denial of his claim for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The veteran claimed his PTSD resulted from multiple incidents of traumatic sexual assault that occurred while serving in the United States Army during the 1960s. The evidence in support of his claim included evidence of in-service behavioral changes and post-service medical opinions that strongly validated that his PTSD resulted from being the victim of multiple assaults.

The Board denied his claim finding that there was insufficient evidence linking his PTSD to any in-service assaults because he never reported the assaults. NVLSP challenged this finding, and argued that the veteran's behavioral changes which included nervousness, irritability, and substance abuse following the claimed assaults could be used as evidence to support his account of the in-service sexual assault. NVLSP also challenged the Board's finding that medical evidence obtained post-service cannot corroborate the in-service stressor, arguing that a medical professional's opinion that a veteran's PTSD is related to an in-service sexual assault is competent, credible evidence that an assault took place.

As a result of comprehensive representation and strong arguments provided by NVLSP, the CAVC sent the case back to the Board on remand. In 2013, the veteran was finally granted service connection for his PTSD with a 50% disability rating, and was awarded over $70,000 in retroactive payments.

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Ms. X

Ms. X. served in the Marines from November 1956 until June 1958. In February 1957 she was sexually assaulted. She did not report the assault until 2005—she filed a claim in August 2008 for VA disability compensation for a mental condition resulting from the assault. Unfortunately, as many survivors of military sexual trauma are aware, the VA denied the claim because the veteran had not enough proof of the sexual assault.

The veteran was represented by The American Legion. Due to the relationship between the American Legion and the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), Ms. X was referred to NVLSP’s military sexual trauma (MST) program, managed by an Equal Justice Works fellow. Her case was eventually placed with attorneys from Faegre Baker Daniels.

In April 2015, these attorneys submitted a written brief, with additional testimony and medical documentation to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA or Board) to support Ms. X’s claim for disability compensation. The evidence tended to prove both the existence of the traumatic event and that the current mental condition was linked to that event. On May 15, 2015, the Board remanded her appeal to the Des Moines VA Regional Office (RO) for further development. After the development was completed, the RO issued a decision granting service connection for posttraumatic stress disorder (previously claimed as anxiety disorder) with an evaluation of 30 percent effective June 21, 2011. Ms. X received back pay of over $20,000 and will receive monthly compensation going forward for the rest of her life.

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Ms. D

Ms. D served honorably in the Army for multiple periods of service from 1986 to 2010. During her service, Ms. D was physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, and sexually harassed on multiple occasions by other members of the military. On one instance, she was even hospitalized and treated for injuries.

Like many other survivors of trauma, she did not voluntarily disclose the physical and sexual abuse that she suffered while in the military. In 2011, Ms. D was struggling with the after effects of her experiences in the military, and she submitted a disability claim for a mental condition to the VA. The VA Regional Office denied her claim. In desperate need of help, Ms. D requested assistance from NVLSP’s MST program. In March 2015, NVLSP placed her case with a group of attorneys at Kirkland & Ellis. Working with NVLSP, the attorneys helped Ms. D reopen her claim.

The volunteer attorneys spent countless hours on this case, and they decided to fly to meet Ms. D and do an in-person interview in her hometown to support her claim. This was to make her feel comfortable and assured that they could be trusted and would do their best to obtain benefits on her behalf.

The attorneys were able to receive records from 1990 as proof of the assaults that Ms. D had suffered. They also obtained an extensive private medical opinion from George Mason University’s Center for Psychological Services that confirmed a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and linked it to military sexual trauma. The attorneys worked diligently and submitted a fully developed claim, with a written argument and the new evidence to the VA Regional Office.

Thanks to their efforts, Ms. D recently received a rating decision granting 100% service connection for PTSD effective March 2015. The VA assigned a permanent 100% disability rating. She is now receiving monthly disability benefits and back pay for the last year. Because of her disability rating, she is entitled to additional benefits such as medical care, educational benefits, and life insurance waivers. She has support to help her build a new life.

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