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VA Reaches Out to Sexual Trauma Survivors Via Facebook

The female veterans on the Women Veterans for Equality in our VA System Facebook page couldnt believe what they saw.

But there it was.

A Department of Veterans Affairs military sexual trauma (MST) coordinator personally assigned to helping them, answering questions directly and guiding them through what many say is a emotionally harrowing and complicated financial benefits process. The Washington Post last month chronicled efforts, sometimes for decades, by this group to receive financial benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual trauma ranging from harassment to rape in the military.

The VAs Heather Lonigro, freshly trained in working on the sexual abuse claims, was standing by and ready to help, she wrote on the Facebook page.

The idea to appoint Lonigro specifically to the Facebook group was from Allison Hickey, who as undersecretary for benefits in the VA is in charge of more than 20,000 employees and delivering services to over 12 million veterans. But she is also, as she put it in an interview in her Washington office this week, a woman who served in the military and I know.

I knew far too many who have been through this, people very, very close to me and it literally destroys lives, reproduction, marriages. It rings true and it totally destroys people said Hickey, who is a retired brigadier general in the Air Force and served in the military for 27 years.

This issue among others is the reason I came to the VA, said Hickey, who was in the first class in the U.S. Air Force Academy to include women. She said she didnt want to share whether she had any personal experiences with sexual trauma while serving, but said, You arent a first and go through that without experiencing or knowing someone who experienced this at every turn.

So far, 19 veterans have received their benefits since Hickey assigned the group a claims officer, said former Army private first class Katie Weber, who founded the page and is herself a sexual trauma survivor. She says she was raped by another soldier when she was 18 while posted in Nuremberg, Germany. Those 19 include one male, and men also say they experienced sexual abuse and have struggled to get claims.

I have watched veterans who have waited decades to live a quality of life they earned and deserve by serving in the military, she said. When I invited undersecretary Hickey to add a claims specialist to our group, I honestly did not believe it would happen. I am thrilled about this! So many women are getting help. And it really, really has the power to turn their lives around.

Part of the problem is that veterans are unable to get disability compensation benefits for sexual trauma because they do not have enough paperwork to support their claims. Advocacy groups and VA officials blame a culture of secrecy and denial inside the military that heavily discourages women from reporting sexual assault.

Hickey said she is talking with the Pentagon about forming a special program that would allow the VAs benefits department to look at so-called restricted files, a term used to describe a sexual assault case that is reported inside the military but deemed private.

That would make claims go faster and we could do it carefully and confidentially, she said.

She also said that the VA is nearly halfway through training 5,000 doctors and nurses specifically in helping women with sexual trauma.

The department labels it military sexual trauma (MST), covering any unwanted contact, including sexual innuendo, groping and rape.

A recent VA survey found that 1 in 4 women said they experienced sexual harassment or assault. And the problem is growing more pressing because female veterans represent the militarys fastest-growing population, with an estimated 2.2 million, or 10 percent, of the countrys veterans. More than 280,000 female veterans have returned home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Advocacy groups say the VA has been slow to adjust to the rising number of women in the military. Some health centers, for instance, only recently opened female restrooms. Women who go to VA centers for treatment say they are routinely asked whether they are waiting for their husbands or are lost. There is no child care, a need that the VA says they want to look into providing.

And while there are a few showcase centers for female veterans, a third of VA medical centers lack a gynecologist on staff, according to a report by Disabled American Veterans, or DAV. Thirty-one percent of VA clinics lack staff to provide adequate treatment for sexual assault, according to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine.

We are going to see this changing, said Hickey. She also put out a list of sexual trauma coordinators by state, with their direct e-mails, on the Vas Web site:

Weber said assigning a claims officer to a Facebook page may seem minor, but when dealing with VAs vast and confusing bureaucracy, its an unusual and welcome step.

She said many of the women see the benefits as a symbol of their pain finally being acknowledged, and its motivating them in other parts of their lives.

Unfortunately they havent been able to use their education because of their trauma not being dealt with, Weber said. Once the VA gives them the benefits, these veterans jump on it and really try to get their services started and heal. Thats a really powerful thing.




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