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March/April 2023 -   -  


A longtime issue that’s only getting worse for today’s service members & veterans of past conflicts

The military has a problem with how it handles sexual harassment, assault, and trauma — commonly known as Military Sexual Trauma, or MST — and how it treats MST survivors. This is not news. What is new is that the situation is worsening.

According to the annual report by the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office released September 1, 2022, MST rates are up significantly, trust in the military’s protection of survivors is at an all-time low, sexual assault is escalating, and confidence in the military system to get justice is plummeting. This comes despite recent efforts under the leadership of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to implement policy changes on how the military handles sexual assault.

The rate of sexual assault and rape in the military jumped by nearly 40 percent from 2016-18; for women the rate increased by more than 50 percent to the highest level since 2006. About 38 percent of female and four percent of male military personnel have experienced MST. In 2018, 6.3 percent of active-duty men and 24.2 percent of active-duty women reported being sexually harassed.

Active-duty service members are not the only ones affected by the military’s long-standing, abysmal record on preventing and responding to MST. Millions of veterans are survivors of MST who are living with its long-term, life-altering mental and physical effects, including depression, family and relationship challenges, work difficulties, sleep issues, anxiety, isolation, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. For years, these survivors have had to fight, too often unsuccessfully, to have their claims addressed by the VA.

So, what is the VA doing to address this national crisis?

One important step took place early in 2022 when Leanne Weldin, then-executive director of the San Juan VA Regional Office volunteered to lead a new VA program on dedicated Military Sexual Trauma Operations Centers.

A Persian Gulf War Army veteran and a Bronze Star recipient who has been working VA claims for 28 years, Weldin has experienced MST and has seen the changes during the last two decades in which survivors have become gradually more willing to talk about their deeply personal experiences while the military justice system and the VA have continued to let them down.

In her first year, Weldin helped implement significant changes at the VA in dealing with MST claims. The important shift to dedicated MST Operations Centers was, in part, a response to Inspector General audits in 2018 and 2021, which uncovered a need to improve training and compensation services, as well as the evaluation of claims. As a result the VA decided to have fewer claims adjudicators with better specialization to deal with MST claims.

“We needed fewer cooks in the kitchen, and better trained people who really know how to work these things,” Weldin said.

The VA began with five sites around the country, and now has eight teams with some 120 claims officers specially trained to deal with MST. According to Weldin, two percent of all VA claims are associated with MST.

As of August 2022, there were 26,000 MST pending claims, including 17,000 that were more than 125 days old. The average number of days to complete MST claims is 136, but many take longer, and the newly trained MST Center personnel are working to expedite the more-pressing claims.

With the benefits of increased staffing and full-time people trained for this mission and competing for these spots, progress has been made in completing MST claims. Weldin reported that the grant rate for PTSD as a result of MST, 56 percent in 2018, is now 74 percent, a clear indication that the newly specialized and trained adjudicators are getting better at making decisions.


Despite these indicators of some successes, many challenges remain. First, MST claims are notoriously difficult due to the complexity of the situation. MST itself is not a diagnosis; it’s an experience that may have happened but also must have a follow-up diagnosis of a condition resulting from the experience, such as head injury, depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

Adjudication is based on the resultant condition or conditions but in the case of MST, sexual assault, or harassment, trauma also must be verified. To build as strong a case as possible, the VA must verify an incident and the follow-up stressors leading to the claimant’s condition.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that sometimes no police records exist since the military typically handles MST incidents internally. Frequently, survivors of MST never file a report with the police or with their military superiors for fear of retaliatory measures from their attacker and from their chain of command.

So VA adjudicators must look for telltale markers in the service member’s record that corroborate their account of an incident such as if someone went off base for a pregnancy or STD test and then was transferred quickly without explanation; or if drastic changes suddenly appeared in someone’s evaluation reports. These situations might indicate sexual trauma or harassment, even if a report was never filed. Unfortunately, the pursuit of these kinds of markers often makes survivors feel as if they are the ones being investigated, rather than their harassers or attackers.

Even though Decision Review Officers are beginning to receive MST training, the MST Centers will not fix the problem alone, Weldin said, and she is seeking to increase staffing. There is a backlog of some 9,700 denials of past MST claims that the VA has committed to opening and reviewing.

To be deemed MST service-connected claimants must show that they have a current condition, that it was caused by military service, and that there is a medical connection between the condition and military service. There are rules that make it a lot easier to meet these criteria, but that is far from saying that only PTSD claims can be granted. In fact, with proper training and dedication, special rules should not be needed; the adjudicators should simply be able to grant a decision. It is possible, although more difficult, to establish service-connection and a positive decision and ultimately to win a claim without a PTSD diagnosis.

“File your claims,” Weldin told a group of VVA VSOs at last year’s National Leadership & Education Conference, “even if they are old or have been previously rejected. They have a better chance now than ever before of being properly adjudicated.”

If you filed an MST-related claim before August 2018 and received a denial, the VA encourages you to refile so that your claim can be reviewed by staff who have received the new training. You can request a re-evaluation by contacting an MST Outreach Coordinator at your local VA Regional Office or by going online to https://www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/mstcoordinators.asp

When you request a re-evaluation, you may submit new or additional evidence with your claim. Veteran Service Officers, MST Outreach Coordinators, and other VA staff can help you submit your claim.

While part of VA’s mission is to be compassionate, efficient, and timely, and the VA’s policy is that any non-consensual sexual assault or harassment while in service is MST, it seems clear that long-term, far-reaching change will not take place without a commitment to new protocols and processes systemwide. Weldin reported that the VA is currently examining more regulations, as well as its entire SOP on MST claims, and is looking at developing marker checklists for adjudicators, VA physicians, and private contractors who meet and diagnose veteran survivors of MST.

Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act includes shifting key prosecution powers for certain crimes from military commanders to independently trained investigators and prosecutors, known as the Office of Special Trial Counsel. That law promises to expand the number of covered crimes from 11 to 14, including sexual harassment.

These changes, alongside DOD’s recent commitment to professionalize its MST workforce focusing on prevention rather than response, offer cause for cautious optimism.


To connect with a Veterans Crisis Line responder anytime day or night, , call 988 or text 838255 To start a confidential chat, go to https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help-now/chat/

If you have hearing loss, call TTY: 800-799-4889.

To apply for disability compensation, go to https://www.va.gov where you can appoint an accredited VSO to help file your claim.

To complete the VA Form 21-526EZ, Veteran’s Application for Compensation and/or Pension, go to https://www.vba.va.gov/pubs/forms/VBA-21-526EZ-ARE.pdf

To contact a male or female VBA MST Outreach Coordinator to help you with the claim process, go to https://www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/mstcoordinators.asp or call 800-827-1000 to locate one near you.




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