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How To Be Successful In A Claim for Military Sexual Trauma

Veterans suffering from a mental or physical disability because of a sexual assault or sexual harassment which occurred while in-service are entitled to compensation for that disability.  Disability claims for a Military Sexual Trauma are a bit different than the typical VA claim.  In this post we’ll go through what is Military Sexual Trauma, why claims for MST are different, and what you can do to be successful in your claim.

What Is Military Sexual Trauma?

Military Sexual Trauma (also shortened to “MST”) is any sexual activity in which a person is involved against their will. This includes sexual harassment.  The official definition used by the VA is “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.”  Sexual harassment is “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character.”

Some examples are:

  • Being pressured into sexual activities (for example, a superior promising a faster promotion in exchange for sex or threatening negative consequences if the servicemember refuses)
  • Being physically forced into sexual activities
  • Being unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, intoxication or drugged)
  • Unwanted sexual touching or grabbing
  • Threatening, offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities
  • Threatening or unwelcome sexual advances

Before we get into the specifics of an MST claim, remember that (like all other VA claims), it does not matter whether the servicemember was on or off duty at the time of the assault, on or off base, or whether the assaulter was a servicemember or civilian. If a servicemember experiences sexual trauma while on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty for training, the VA considers that to qualify as an MST.

How To Support an MST Claim 

First, recall the three elements that must be proved any claim for a service-connected disability:

  1. The veteran must currently suffer from a disability;
  2. There must have been an event or injury which occurred during service; and
  3. There must be evidence which shows the in-service event or injury caused the current disability.
Disabilities Caused By Military Sexual Trauma

This is Element 1: The veteran must currently suffer from a disability. MST is most commonly associated with mental health issues.

Persons who have experienced Military Sexual Trauma often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety Disorder, Depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues.  The VA rates mental disorders primarily based on a list of symptoms found in 38 CFR 4.130.  If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and were traumatized during service, you should consider speaking to a mental health professional.

The consequences of MST are not limited to mental disorders.  MST survivors may suffer from sexual difficulties, chronic pain, weight or eating problems, or gastrointestinal problems. Additionally, they may experience difficulty with attention, concentration, and memory, and have trouble staying focused or frequently finding their mind wandering.  There is a strong association with MST survivors in developing certain specific medical conditions (such as obesity or weight loss, chronic pulmonary disease, liver disease and hypothyroidism).

MST is the “event” or “injury”

This is Element 2: There must have been an event or injury which occurred during service.

MST is not a disability.  Rather, MST is the event or injury, proof of which satisfies this second element.  The veteran must submit evidence to prove that the disease, injury, or event that caused or aggravated the current disability actually happened.  This is where claims for Military Sexual Trauma are somewhat different than other claims.  The VA recognizes that because of the personal and sensitive nature of a sexual trauma, they often go unreported.  Most of the time, there is no record of the assault in the individual’s service record which the VA can use to verify it occurred.

So how does one prove the event? The veteran’s own detailed statement and what the VA refers to as “markers.”  “Markers” are essentially any other pieces of evidence which corroborate the veteran’s story.  They should be used to paint the whole picture of the event (or events) and its effect on the veteran’s work and life.

VA’s guidance on special consideration of MST claims is currently limited to claims for PTSD, but the guidelines are still useful in proving the event or injury in claims where a Military Sexual Trauma has caused a disability other than PTSD.

“Markers” Used By VA To Substantiate An MST Claim

Records from the following:

  • Law enforcement agencies
  • Rape crisis centers
  • Mental health counseling centers
  • Hospitals or physicians
  • Pregnancy tests
  • Tests for sexually transmitted diseases

Statements from:

  • Family members
  • Roommates
  • Fellow servicemembers
  • Clergy

Behavioral Changes:

  • Request for a transfer to another assignment
  • Deterioration in work performance
  • Substance abuse
  • Episodes of depression, panic attacks, or anxiety that cannot be otherwise explained
  • Unexplained economic or social behavior changes

How to Use These Markers

The veteran should focus these various pieces of evidence on one purpose: proving that the event(s) claimed by the veteran actually occurred.  Here’s an example:

After several weeks of long hours preparing their brigade for a rotation to JRTC, the brigade medical staff went out for drinks one night after work.  SPC Stephanie C. rode to the restaurant where they gathered with her roommate, another female SPC in the unit.  After a few hours celebrating and a few margaritas, SPC Shirley was ready to go home, but her roommate wanted to meet her boyfriend at another bar.  SPC Stephanie accepted a ride with SFC Mike D., her supervisor, who was driving some of the other male members of the unit back to their barracks.

After dropping them off, SFC Mike offered to walk SPC Stephanie back to her barracks, but before they arrived he took her to a secluded area, sexually assaulted her, threatened her if she told anyone about it, and left her there.  SPC Shirley let herself back into her dorm and fell asleep.

The next day she drove herself to a drugstore and purchased a Plan B pill.  The next week she went back to the same drugstore and purchased a pregnancy test, which was negative.  A month later, after her roommate had noticed SPC Shirley had become withdrawn, saddened, and apathetic about work, SPC Shirley confided in her roommate about the assault, but would not tell her who or give any other details.  Rather, SPC Stephanie asked her roommate to drop it and not tell anyone.  SPC Stephanie never told anyone else about the assault.

SPC Stephanie's work performance suffered, and over the next six months she received two reprimands for being late to PT and for being sloppy with her patient’s paperwork.  She was still promoted on time, however, and a year later PCS’ed overseas.  Four years later, however, she learned she was being transferred to the same unit as SFC Mike, now MSG Mike, and would again work in the same office as him.  She requested a different unit but was denied.  Rather than reenlist and serve again with MSG Mike, she left the service with an honorable discharge.  Three years later, after continuing insomnia, anxiety, and difficulties trusting others at her new job, she filed a claim with the VA for PTSD arising out of the sexual assault.

To be successful in her claim, Stephanie must prove the second element: that this Military Sexual Trauma actually occurred.  There is no direct documentation recording the event. Stephanie’s own statement submitted with her claim is also not enough to prove this element.  But there is some evidence to corroborate her statement.

  • Receipts, credit card statement, or anything to show she went to the drugstore on the day after and the week after the assault
  • Statements from the male members of the unit if they remember riding home that night with SFC Mike
  • A statement from Stephanie’s roommate detailing her observations of Stephanie’s mood and the night Stephanie confided in her that she had been assaulted
  • Any e-mails, texts, or letters from Stephanie’s roommate to others about the event.  For example, did Stephanie’s roommate e-mail her mom two days later and mention Stephanie’s assault in the e-mail?
  • Stephanie can submit the two reprimands to show a change in her behavior
  • All documents generated by Stephanie’s request for a different unit assignment
  • Statement from her co-workers, supervisors, or anyone who observed a change in Stephanie’s behavior around the time of the event

Submitting more than just a lay statement with the initial MST claim is important not only to support the second element, but to also trigger the VA’s duty to schedule a C&P examination to assess the veteran’s current level of disability.  The VA typically requires evidence of at least one “marker” in the file before it will schedule a veteran for an exam.

Proving The MST Caused The Current Disability

And finally, we have Element 3: There must be evidence which shows the current disability was caused by the event or injury in service.

Proving this element requires a doctor or qualified professional to opine that the current disability is at least as likely as not caused by the MST. This is one purpose for the C&P examination. The veteran is not limited to the C&P examiner’s opinion, however. If the veteran is or has received medical treatment for the disability, the veteran should ask that doctor if they will issue an opinion or statement that links the disability to the MST.

What to do if VA has already denied your MST claim

The VA is reviewing all denials of MST-related disability claims filed after 2017. You can read more about why here, but the VA Inspector General found that in many instances the VA was not following its own guidelines on the more liberal evidentiary requirements to prove an in-service MST stressor.  We recommend any veteran in this situation confirm that the VA is reviewing their particular claim.  Further, VA implemented these rules in 2011, so any veteran denied a claim prior to then should also ask for a reevaluation.

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About the Author

Adam Werner is a partner and practicing attorney at WHG. He specializes in personal injury cases, workers’ compensation claims, and veteran disability benefits. He routinely writes about personal injury and workers comp topics for the Werner, Hoffman, Greig & Garcia blog

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