WASHINGTON — A Maine woman who has struggled for decades to overcome the trauma of a sexual assault that ended her military career said Wednesday that it was a bittersweet honor to lend her name to a bill to help other veterans who are haunted by past assaults.
The Ruth Moore Act of 2013, introduced in the House and the Senate, aims to make it easier for those who suffered “military sexual trauma” to receive disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It gives hope to every MST survivor that things can be made right,” Moore said Wednesday during a news conference announcing the bills. “This act is our future and it gives us back our dignity when we try to get help.”
Moore, who is from the Washington County town of Milbridge, was a reluctant spokeswoman for the cause as recently as last year, but has since become a vocal advocate for helping others who were assaulted sexually.
Moore said she and representatives for the Service Women’s Action Network have heard from thousands of veterans who were assaulted. They delivered more than 150,000 petition signatures to Department of Veterans Affairs officials in support of relaxing the evidentiary requirements for sexual assault survivors.
The measures, sponsored by Maine’s U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, in the House and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in the Senate, would set essentially the same standards for sexual assault survivors as for veterans who seek disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.
To qualify, an applicant would need a diagnosis of a mental health condition with a link to the assault.
“Although we have made some progress, the VA has been very inconsistent about enforcing their own policies,” Pingree said. “I have heard from veterans across the country who have been denied disability benefits by the VA. It is so obvious to us that the current system is not working.”
According to the Service Women’s Action Network, less than one-third of benefits claims for post-traumatic stress disorder because of sexual assaults were approved, compared with more than 53 percent for PTSD claims overall.
The Defense Department’s own estimates are that as many as one in every four women in the military will be the targets of sexual abuse or assault. Yet groups estimate that nearly 90 percent of sexual assaults in the military are never reported, largely because of concern about retaliation
“We have seen enough lives ruined and we have seen enough suicides,” said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who is executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “Because the VA will not act on its own to do the right thing, it is now time for justice to be legislated.”
Sexual assault in the military is getting more attention from Congress and defense officials. The documentary “The Invisible War,” which investigates the military’s lackluster record of investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults, is nominated for an Academy Award.
Moore fought for years to get recognition from the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was raped and assaulted twice by a superior officer more than 20 years ago while serving overseas and was never properly treated for the assault, despite reporting the crime to a chaplain.
Her attacker was never prosecuted and Moore was diagnosed wrongly. After being hospitalized for being suicidal, she was discharged from the Navy. She struggled for decades with emotional and problems related to the incidents.
Moore was denied benefits repeatedly because her records had been expunged, which advocacy groups say is common. She eventually gained partial benefits and, in July, went public with her story in news reports and in testimony before a congressional committee.
Pingree sponsored a similar bill last year, but it died in committee. She and Tester said they are optimistic that their bills will have more success this year, given the focus on sexual assault in the military.
Moore said she was shocked when Pingree first asked to put her name on the bill this year but agreed in part because of the response from veterans since she went public.
Moore said she has received calls and emails and even been stopped in airports by veterans who were assaulted.
After Wednesday’s news conference, Moore said, “If my voice is going to be heard, I better make sure my voice reflects what all of the other MST survivors want heard.”
Kevin Miller — 317-6256