WASHINGTON — It took Ruth Moore a quarter-century before she was able to speak openly about how she was sexually assaulted as an 18-year-old Navy enlistee.

And even now — after talking to members of Congress, military officials and countless veterans with similar stories — the experience is still painful for a woman who occasionally still wants to “run away and hide with my goats” on her farm in Down East Maine.

So on Wednesday, as she accepted a Voice for Change Award on Capitol Hill, Moore said she did so on behalf of all of the others like her out there.

“We carried the battle cry across this nation,” Moore, of Milbridge, told several hundred people attending a Service Women’s Action Network Truth and Justice Summit. “I will accept this award with the knowledge that we all accept this award together. Because when I look at the people here I see the bravery, courage, pain, anger and conviction that I carry and live with every day.”

Wednesday’s summit came one day after a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee held a hearing on the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, which aims to make it easier for veterans and service members to qualify for disability benefits due to sexual assault. The bill will establish relaxed evidentiary standards similar to those for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, claims due to combat.

“What we have is an inequity in the system and those who were raped or sexually assaulted in the military have a much harder path to receiving benefits, even though these injuries are service-connected and the same standard should apply,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, the Maine Democrat sponsoring the bill, told the subcommittee.

A similar bill died in Congress last year, but advocates for survivors of “military sexual trauma” say they believe momentum has shifted in their favor because of the willingness of veterans to tell their stories both to members of Congress and in accounts such as the documentary “The Invisible War.”

“We are making some significant progress,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who was also recognized for her work on the issue of military sexual assault.

According to statistics compiled by SWAN from Freedom of Information requests, less than one-third of benefits claims for post-traumatic stress disorder due to sexual assaults were approved by the VA, 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, due in large part to concerns over retaliation or distrust in the military’s judicial process.

Moore did not receive a 70 percent disability determination until 23 years after a superior officer raped her twice – once initially and then a second time in retaliation for reporting it – while she was stationed in the Azores with the Navy. She struggled for decades with depression, anxiety disorders and suicidal thoughts before finally getting help through a comprehensive treatment program at a VA hospital.

After decades of silence, Moore first went public with her story last year in the Maine media and then testified before the same congressional subcommittee. Asked about that rapid transition and her role as the public name and face of this aspect of the debate over military sexual assault, Moore said she feels “like I have 400 pounds off of my shoulders” but also a power from support she has received from other veterans.

Moore teared up Wednesday as she held a compilation of the 400 letters she has received from across the country since sharing her own experiences.

“I cried in pain with their stories,” said Moore, who received a standing ovation following her remarks.

On Thursday, attendees of the SWAN conference plan to head over the Capitol and the offices of House and Senate members to lobby both for the Ruth Moore Act and reforms in the way the military’s judicial handling of sexual assault cases.

Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and company commander who co-founded SWAN, called Moore “a tireless advocate who has transformed adversity into action in helping others.”

“Her testimony last summer was absolutely pivotal in getting this legislation that we have worked on for quite some time to move forward,” Bhagwati said. “We needed a face to the issue. There are countless veterans . . . but Ruth’s story was so powerful, just the sheer length of time she had to struggle with the VA. In addition, she is just a phenomenal spokesperson and a phenomenal advocate.”

An earlier version of this article was changed to correct the name of the Service Women’s Action Network’s Truth and Justice Summit.


Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
[email protected]
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC


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