Thousands of female veterans are struggling to get health-care treatment and compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs on the grounds that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual trauma in the military. The veterans and their advocates call it “the second battle” — with a bureaucracy they say is stuck in the past.
Judy Atwood-Bell was just a 19-year-old Army private when she says she was locked inside a barracks room at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, forced to the cold floor and raped by a fellow solider.
For more than two decades, Atwood-Bell fought for an apology and financial compensation from VA for PTSD, with panic attacks, insomnia and severe depression that she recalls started soon after that winter day in 1981. She filled out stacks of forms in triplicate and then filled them out again, pressing over and over for recognition of the harm that was done.
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 military’s fastest-growing population, with an estimated 2.2 million, or 10 percent, of the country’s veterans. More than 280,000 female veterans have returned home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About two weeks ago, when Atwood-Bell checked the department’s Web site, as she does every day, she was stunned to discover that the agency had accepted her claim for compensation.
“It’s taken over 20 years, and that should’ve never happened,” said Atwood-Bell, who retired as a sergeant first class and lives in New Hampshire, her voice cracking with emotion. “My fight is not over. It’s not done for so many other women out there. I want to help them to get what we are entitled to.”
The Pentagon has been conducting a high-profile campaign to prevent sexual attacks and punish offenders amid concerns that defense officials neglected these assaults for years.
But advocacy groups say VA has been slow to adjust to the rising number of women in the military.
SOURCE: Emily Wax-Thibodeaux