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'Clear threat': Reports of military sexual assault leap 50 percent

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Blum set out to collect experiences from women in the military, and was struck by the number of women who reported abuse, and changed the focus of her book. Some of the women interviewed in the book suffered grisly crimes like gang rape, she says, only to be interrogated, detained and, in some cases, threatened when they reported the crime.

In a Defense Department report, 74 percent of females and 60 percent of males said they perceived barriers to reporting assault, and 62 percent of victims who did report said they experienced professional, social or administrative retaliation.

"Some men have the attitude that they can do and say whatever they want and get away with it," Blum says. "The problem is, they do often get away with it. Commanders have allowed this to happen and done nothing to stop it."

It's also not unusual that the perpetrator is the victim's commander, or is in a position of power over them. Twenty five percent of women and 27 percent of men who received unwanted sexual contact indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command, according to a Defense Department report.

Rape is much more likely to occur between people who know each other, says Anthony Zenkus, who specializes in helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence as director of education at The Safe Center LI, a nonprofit that provides services for victims of abuse.

Zenkus says that rape is rarely "a stranger who grab someone and pulls them into the bushes," he says. "Women are in danger of violence or rape from somebody that they know, especially if that person is in a position of power over them, like a boss or clergy person, or other authority figure."

Legal battles

Over time, the VA has required less evidence from vets who claim disability benefits for PTSD from combat or exposure to danger, but not for those suffering from sexual trauma. Yet sexual violence "correlates with PTSD more highly than any other trauma, including combat," according to the suit filed against the VA.

To qualify for benefits, veterans have to prove the disability is service-related. And in the case of sexual trauma, victims must provide "corroborating evidence." This can be hard to come by, according to Greg Rinckey, managing partner at Tully Rinckey law firm in New York and Washington, D.C., who is a former army prosecutor.

If a soldier has combat experience and claims PTSD, that can be enough evidence in many cases, says Rinckey, but not with sexual assault. "With females or anyone stating sex trauma it has to be corroborated — and that can be hard to come up with," says Rinckey.

Symptoms of PTSD can include depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, trouble relating to loved ones, flashbacks, and other symptoms that can also lead to substance abuse issues, interrupt ability to work, and affect quality of life, according to the VA. Benefits are intended to go toward treatment for PTSD and its effects.

Without treatment or medical records, the VA is likely to deny the claim, Rinckey says. "If someone claims to have an issue with their knee due to service, they would look at the treatment record to see if there was anything to support it. That's the same way they are treating sex trauma cases, which can be unfair because people don't come forward for fear of retaliation," he says.

The VA denies a much higher percentage of military sexual trauma-related PTSD claims than for other mental health disorders. From 2009-2012, other claims were 16.5 to 29.6 percent more likely to be granted, according to suit against the VA.

Loosening the regulations can be a "slippery slope," however, says Rinckey, because it could "open the floodgates" to potentially false claims that could cost the government millions or even billions over time.

"This is not chump change," he says of the PTSD disability benefits that are at stake, which could be as much as $12,000 a year per soldier. He says that the requirements could be loosened responsibly, if things like testimony from a battle buddy or other friend at the time of the sexual trauma be counted as "corroborating evidence," whether they had been told of the attack, or just noticed a marked change in behavior.

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