Many veterans, male and female, have experienced sexual trauma while serving in military and/or civilian capacities. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) calls these traumas "military sexual trauma" (MST). The VA defines MST as sexual assault (including rape) or repetitive, threatening sexual harassment.
If you experienced military sexual trauma, you may find yourself affected by your experiences from the time they occurred, or many years later you may develop psychological and physical difficulties.
Can I Get Disability Compensation for MST?
You are eligible for veterans disability compensation on the basis of military sexual trauma if you can prove:
- you had an incident of military sexual trauma while on active duty
- you are currently diagnosed with a mental or physical disability, and
- your disabilities were caused by, or were worsened by, the military sexual trauma you suffered in service.
You cannot receive compensation on the basis of military sexual trauma alone. You must have a compensable health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and substance abuse.
Sometimes veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder more from the retaliation that occurs when they report the crime than by the sexual assault itself. This is especially true for those vets who served in prior wars, such as Vietnam, before there were any resources or recognition of these types of crimes.
Following the MST you suffered, if you were diagnosed with a personality disorder while in service, you will need to go to a VA doctor and describe all your symptoms so you can get a more accurate diagnosis. This is important to do because you cannot receive benefits for a diagnosis of personality disorder.
What Evidence Do I Need to Prove MST?
Most survivors are very unlikely to have any documentation showing that the sexual assault or harassment occurred. There is a significant stigma against reporting such assaults, and because assaults are often are not reported right away, the military has often taken no disciplinary action at all against those who perpetrated these assaults. This often means there is no record at all of what happened.
The VA understands this and does not require that service medical records contain proof of the assault or harassment.
Other forms of proof of the incident(s) that will be accepted include:
- police records and/or records from rape crisis centers
- pregnancy tests or tests for sexually transmitted diseases
- statements from your friends in service, family members, counselors, or clergy, or
- journals or diaries that you kept at the time of the trauma.
Proof of behavioral changes will also be accepted, such as:
- documentation that you requested a transfer
- evidence of a drug or alcohol problem
- changes in job performance and/or changes in your social or economic behavior for which there is no other explanation
- marital and/or sexual difficulties, or
- incidents of depression or anxiety for which no other cause has been identified.
How to Apply for Disability Compensation
As a survivor of military sexual trauma, you may be entitled to expedited processing of your disability claim. Check with your regional office to see if they have implement VA's Fast Track program, and if they have, apply using VA Form 21-526EZ. If the office isn't using Fast Track yet, apply using VA Form 21-526. If you have a claim for PTSD based on MST, also complete and submit VA Form 21-0781a, Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Secondary to Personal Assault.
You can also apply online at www.ebenefits.va.gov. If you need help with your application, call your regional VA office and ask if there is an MST specialist that can help you. Not all regional offices have an MST specialist, so if yours doesn’t, then ask to speak to the Women Veterans Coordinator. To locate your regional office, call 800-827-1000 or visit www.va.gov.
If Your Claim Is Denied
Many veterans report feeling traumatized all over again when the VA tells them they can’t have benefits because they have not provided enough evidence. Even though the VA's regulations permit a finding of service connection without service medical records confirming a sexual assault or harassment, in practice, many claims are denied without this evidence. If you are denied benefits for MST, it can be very difficult to win an appeal and you will likely need the help of a disability attorney.
All too often women and men in the service who have reported sexual assault by another service member have been medically discharged for a personality disorder and denied VA benefits on that basis. This is because the VA considers a personality disorder, like an adjustment disorder, to be a non-compensable pre-existing condition.
You signed up and showed up to serve your country, and you deserve to have a character of discharge that reflects that service. If you received a medical discharge due a personality disorder, you can apply to have your reason for discharge changed so that you can obtain benefits. For example, you can seek to have your diagnosis changed from personality disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder. This is important because the VA awards benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, but the VA does not pay compensation for personality disorders.
For more information, see Nolo's article on getting your military discharge upgraded.
Access to VA Health Care and Counseling
Even if you are unable to get disability compensation or your application is in process, you are still entitled to counseling and other health care services for any medical issues that are related to your sexual assault. The VA has become increasingly aware of the widespread problem of military sexual trauma and has increased resources to address it.