A Maine native who became a national figure in the fight to help survivors of military sexual assault learned Thursday that she will receive $405,000 in retroactive disability benefits, ending a decades-long battle with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ruth Moore was told by a VA representative that the department had made a “clear and unmistakable error” – an official VA classification – in denying her benefits for physical and emotional trauma she suffered after being raped while in the Navy more than 20 years ago.

Moore said the news brought relief and a “sense of peace,” but also affirmation because the VA admitted it hadn’t considered her medical and military records dating to 1993 – an acknowledgment that she hopes will pave the way for long-standing claims filed by thousands of other military sexual assault survivors. Moore said she will use part of the $405,000 to start a nonprofit – called Internity – dedicated to helping sexual assault survivors “recover their humanity” and rebuild hope.

“The fact that really hit me the hardest is that they apologized,” Moore said by telephone Thursday evening. “It was like, ‘Holy cow. Finally, finally someone listened to me.’ ”

Moore was raped twice by a superior officer – the second time in retaliation for reporting the first rape – while she was stationed in The Azores islands with the Navy. She said she was discharged on a false mental illness diagnosis and never received proper treatment from the military for the sexual assault.

Moore subsequently struggled with depression, anxiety disorders, homelessness and physical ailments tied to the incident, but was continually denied benefits. She was granted partial benefits several years ago, without retroactive compensation.

After decades of silence, Moore went public in 2012 after contacting the office of Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. Moore first told her story to Maine media and then testified to a congressional subcommittee examining why so many victims of “military sexual trauma,” or MST, were unable to qualify for VA disability benefits.

A year later, Moore lent her name to a bill sponsored by Pingree that aimed to make it easier for veterans and service members to qualify for benefits for post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other disabilities tied to sexual assault. The bill passed the House but has yet to be taken up in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the VA has revisited some sexual assault cases amid scrutiny on Capitol Hill over sexual assault in the military. Pingree’s office has helped several veterans, including Moore, receive more than $900,000 in back benefits during the past two years. Moore and Pingree also credited workers at the Togus VA Hospital in Augusta for helping with her appeal.

“The money is important, of course, but for survivors of MST the acknowledgment that the VA has listened to them and believes them is incredibly important,” Pingree said in a written statement. “These veterans served our country and if they are suffering from PTSD because of a sexual assault while they were in uniform, we owe them disability benefits. Unfortunately, MST claims haven’t always been handled properly and sometimes that’s where we have to step in.”

Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said the VA has granted retroactive benefits to other veterans, but it is unusual for the department to acknowledge a “clear and unmistakable error” in reviewing the claims that his office has handled.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media Inc., which publishes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

The Service Women’s Action Network estimates that fewer than one-third of benefits claims for PTSD caused by sexual assault were approved by the VA, compared with more than 53 percent of PTSD claims overall. The Defense Department estimates that as many as one in four women in the military will be sexually abused or assaulted.

The number of sexual assaults reported by members of the military has risen in recent years, a trend that observers say is at least partly because service members are more willing to report incidents. But groups involved in the issue insist that the vast majority of assaults still go unreported, largely because of concerns about retaliation or distrust of the military’s judicial process.

Moore, 45, of Milbridge in Washington County, first went public with her story at a time when members of Congress – primarily female lawmakers – began demanding that military leaders respond more aggressively to the crisis of sexual assault in the military. Both Pingree and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, have been vocal players in the ongoing debate.

After remaining in the shadows for years, Moore has emerged as a national voice on the VA’s handling of disability benefits tied to sexual assaults. Her online petition demanding changes has been signed by more than 167,000 people, and last year she received the “Voice for Change Award” during the Service Women’s Action Network Truth and Justice Summit on Capitol Hill.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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