Photo by DoD

Legion backs bill supporting MST victims

The American Legion is supporting proposed legislation that, if enacted, would require records on military sexual trauma (MST) incidents to remain permanently filed by the Department of Defense.

The proposed Support for Survivors Act (S.658) aims to change the way DoD handles reports and records relating to incidents of sexual assault or harassment. These reports and records are not filed permanently and often destroyed later. Without documentary evidence, a victim of MST may later find it difficult or impossible to obtain compensation for disabilities related to the incident.

Introduced last March by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the bill "directs the Secretary of Defense to identify the most appropriate and effective means for the preservation by the Department of Defense (DoD) of documentary evidence (in electronic format) of incidents of sexual assault or harassment in which a member of the Armed Forces is the victim." Further, it "directs the Secretary and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish a joint task force to determine whether to establish a documentary evidence form, report, or document in lieu of forms, reports, and documents currently generated by DoD."

In a letter delivered to Klobuchar on April 28, Tim Tetz, the Legion's legislative director, expressed full support for the bill, emphasizing its great usefulness in assuring proper treatment and providing benefits for MST victims.

The letter reads, in part: "One of the most vital components of obtaining service connection for veterans is the proof of an incident in service. As many survivors of sexual trauma do not seek immediate treatment for these traumas and only discover the full after-effects months and years down the road, many veterans face terrible obstacles in proving their claims for disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other residuals of these traumas, when the supporting records can no longer be found. Your bill would rectify this injustice and help these veterans get the treatment and care they vitally need and deserve."

Tetz said the proposed legislation would also help MST victims pursuing legal action against alleged perpetrators of sexual assault or harassment.

A recent DoD report on MST states that, in fiscal 2010, there were more than 3,100 reports of sexual assault involving servicemembers. DoD estimates that only 13.5 percent of victims report such incidents. "So it is probably safe to assume that about 20,000 servicemembers experienced sexual assault last year alone," Tetz said.

"Not only is that unconscionable," said Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, "but so is the fact that many of those victims have not - and may never receive - justice in the form of the treatment and benefits to which they are entitled.

"This is why passing the Support for Survivors Act is so important. It may not right all past wrongs, but it can help assure the rights of future victims," she said.

Jones' division recently commissioned a comprehensive survey of 3,012 women veterans. The survey was conducted online in January and results were announced March 22; among them was the revelation that nearly 40 percent of the respondents were dissatisfied with the MST screening process used at VA medical facilities.

"This legislation may not address dissatisfaction with the MST screening process directly, but perhaps the debate over it will shine a spotlight on this issue and other related matters," Jones said.

Klobuchar's bill has been referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee for discussion. Currently, the Support for Survivors Act is cosponsored by seven of 17 women senators in the 112th Congress.