(U.S. Senate) – U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) today reintroduced their bipartisan bill to improve resources and care for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST).
Their Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act expands the definition of MST to ensure servicemembers and veterans who experience online sexual harassment can access VA counseling and benefits. It also codifies a lower burden of proof so more survivors are eligible for trauma and mental health care related to MST, even if they didn’t feel comfortable reporting the event to their chain of command while in service.
“It’s unacceptable that any man or woman who has served our nation has endured sexual assault or harassment during their service,” said Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We must make it easier for these servicemembers and veterans to seek out the care and services they need to address their trauma.”
“The issue of sexual assault and trauma is an alarming underside of military culture that we haven’t been able to adequately address. It is heartbreaking to think that those who have volunteered to serve our nation, who put themselves on our front lines would be made a victim of sexual misconduct in their working environment. And the reality is that sexual trauma has taken on new forms in recent years, including cyber-abuse, putting those in our armed forces at even greater risk,” said Senator Murkowski. “This legislation provides tools for victims of sexual trauma in the military to seek justice and cope with the trauma.”
“This country continues to fail veterans who were sexually assaulted or harassed during their military service. Roughly half of the military sexual trauma (MST) claims denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs were recently found to have been improperly adjudicated. And MST survivors with certain mental health conditions face extra roadblocks to receiving benefits, including those with anxiety, depression, and newly defined trauma disorders,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. "Enough is enough. We must bring policies up to speed with medical science and ensure that all service members whose mental health was harmed by MST can get the benefits they deserve. I’m proud to reintroduce this legislation to do so while also updating forms of sexual harassment eligible for benefits and widening access to resources for members of the Guard and Reserves.”
The Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act is endorsed by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
“DAV stands with MST survivors,” said Joy Ilem, DAV National Legislative Director. “We fully support and applaud the provisions outlined in the Service members and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2019 which recognize the various forms of sexual abuse and will help to ensure survivors’ claims are fairly adjudicated so they can address the life-long physical and emotional impact that sexual trauma can have. This bill makes clear that military sexual assault—in all forms—is unacceptable.”
The Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act would make sure that more mental health diagnoses related to MST qualify for VA service-connected benefits, and requires the VA to have specially-trained claims raters processing MST-related benefits claims, addressing an issue recently uncovered by VA’s Office of Inspector General. Additionally, in an effort to encourage more victims to come forward, the bill requires military officials to educate service members about available VA care services for military sexual trauma survivors, at all VA healthcare facilities across the country.
The bill is cosponsored by Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Angus King (I-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Representatives Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Gregorio Sablan (D-M.P.), Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). Full text of the bill is available online HERE.