Verna Jones speaks before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health. Photo by Craig Roberts

Change needed to deter sexual abuse

Speaking before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health, Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans' Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission, referred to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report - Actions Needed to Prevent Sexual Assaults and Other Safety Incidents - and the Legion's own comprehensive survey of women veterans conducted last January.

The GAO report revealed that, in the last three years alone, nearly 300 incidents of sexual assault were reported to VA's police force. In The American Legion's study, 18 percent of 3,012 women surveyed said they were "dissatisfied or very dissatisfied" with their sense of security in the VA health-care system. "Suffice to say, this is utterly unacceptable," Jones said.

In her written testimony, Jones said, "When compared with recent figures which indicate approximately the same percentage of women in DoD (Department of Defense) have experienced military sexual trauma (MST), it is not unreasonable to start asking questions about whether there are lingering artifacts of the pervasive culture of the military that foster sexual assault without long-term consequences."

Jones told the House subcommittee that The American Legion recognizes there are "cultural considerations both DoD and VA have long striven to overcome. If there is to be substantial change to rectify the unsatisfactory state of affairs, the change must affect the cultural environment."

Besides recognizing the necessity of cultural evolution within the military community, the Legion pointed to the need for more immediate and tangible measures being taken to deter cases of sexual trauma within VA facilities. In her oral remarks, Jones said, "The Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act (H.R. 2074) directs VA to define terms and policies, and to accept accountability with mandatory reporting. The American Legion applauds and fully supports this legislation as a first step towards fixing the problem.

"But, let's not allow this to be another opportunity to add high-level bureaucrats to the system and further exacerbate the problems of a top-heavy operational model . This problem doesn't require a battalion of senior executives, it requires VA authorizing the employees they have to take charge and manage this on a local level,but with consistency. It requires VA to implement clear accountability goals for the people already in place."

Although each VA medical facility is required to have a military sexual trauma coordinator on staff, Jones said "in most facilities this is not even a full-time job. More often, it is an afterthought, additional duties assigned to an employee with other obligations.

"The American Legion recommends elevating this position to a full-time employee whose duties are fully focused on dealing with the effects of sexual trauma, whether incurred in service or at any time. Let these employees, already dedicated at least in part to helping these victims, become the front-line soldiers in this battle.

"Try as we might,we cannot remove the horror that comes from hearing of these experiences, nor should we. Indeed, only by facing the difficult truths can we hope to overcome them."