WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is removing some of the obstacles to benefits for veterans who have been traumatized by being sexually assaulted while in the military, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said Monday.

The change in policy accomplishes most of what the Maine Democrat wanted in a bill she introduced in March. But Pingree thinks her bill is still needed, to put the force of law behind the VA’s new stance.

The VA maintains that its policy for treating sexual-assault trauma victims hasn’t changed, but it acknowledged in a statement Monday that it “is taking action to sensitize decision makers to the difficulties veterans have in establishing these claims.”

A memo sent to VA employees June 27 by retired Air Force Gen. Allison Hickey, a new under secretary of veterans affairs, followed a meeting between the general and Pingree, according to Pingree’s office.

At the meeting, Pingree argued that the VA had to make it easier for veterans to get disability benefits related to a sexual assault without providing documentation that the assault had happened, according to Pingree’s office.

The VA has indicated to Pingree that it believed it had basic rules to let veterans with sexual assault-related disabilities get benefits without burdensome evidence requirements, but it has acknowledged that those rules weren’t necessarily being followed. That’s why Hickey wrote her memo, Pingree said.

Hickey’s memo said “employees should not expect to see evidence in most military sexual assault cases” because most victims don’t file reports when assaults happen. Her memo was intended as “procedural guidance” to make sure all VA employees are properly trained to handle claims of disabling trauma from sexual assault.

While the VA will still look for evidence of what happened to a veteran during their service, it will accept the veteran’s statement about what happened, and “all reasonable doubt will be resolved in the veteran’s favor,” the VA said in its statement Monday.

Veterans who have been sexually assaulted and been denied benefits might want to reapply now, Pingree said. Veterans can get assistance from her office by calling 774-5019.

Pingree, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she has spoken with veterans in Maine and Washington who have had problems getting needed benefits in the wake of sexual assaults while in the military.

In May, MaineToday Media interviewed a Navy veteran from Maine about Pingree’s legislation and the VA’s policies. The woman had recently won a judgment from the VA that she is fully disabled from sexual assaults she suffered in 1987. She said it shouldn’t have taken her more than two decades to do so.

The woman said her problems got so bad that she couldn’t hold down a professional level job and had trouble just walking into a crowded store because of the noise and proximity to people.

The Department of Defense has acknowledged that sexual assault is a problem in the military, but says progress is being made.

The nonprofit advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network said it isn’t satisfied with the VA’s move, and agrees with Pingree that her legislation is still needed.

“We are disappointed that VA chose not to support Rep. Pingree’s bill to help sexual trauma survivors,” said Anu Bhagwati, the network’s executive director. “The memo from Undersecretary Hickey encourages a change in attitude and process … but does not change policy.”

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

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