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VA wrongly denied benefits to vets sexually assaulted in the military

The Department of Veterans Affairs wrongly denied hundreds of benefits claims in recent years, potentially leaving thousands of former servicemembers who were sexually assaulted while in the military without necessary care, a government watchdog found.

The Veterans Benefits Administration processes around 12,000 claims per year for vets who claim to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to “military sexual trauma.” The VBA denied around 5,500 claims but an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General found that in 2017 alone, the VBA incorrectly processed as many as 1,300 sexual trauma claims.

The investigation’s findings came as no surprise to retired Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military.

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“I’m disappointed in the sense that I know there have been reforms made to help improve this process,” Christensen said. “So, it was disappointing that the IG’s investigation shows that reforms aren’t working.”

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Ohio is home to 866,000 veterans, making it the sixth biggest state for vets in the country. The Dayton region — which is the location of Ohio’s largest single-site employer in Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — is home to more than 42,000 veterans, according to U.S. Census data.

The region’s military presence has made the issue of sexual assault in the armed forces a central issue for Miami Valley’s leaders.

In December 2007, Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach of Vandalia disappeared when she was eight months pregnant and her remains were found in January 2008. Fellow Marine Cesar Laurean, whom Lauterbach had accused of sexual assault, was later convicted of her murder.

Following Lauterbach’s death, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, led an effort to change a law on how the Department of Defense handles sexual assault charges. Sexual assault in the military remains a focus for Turner and he serves as co-chairman of the military sexual assault prevention caucus in congress.

Turner said he was “deeply disturbed” by the Inspector General’s report out this week.

“I’ve fought for the past decade to make the military safer for individuals serving our country,” Turner said. “This report shows that there is still work to be done. Our caucus will be following up with the VA on this report and its action plan to remedy these serious issues.”

Turner is up for re-election in November for his House seat. His opponent in the the Ohio 10th District is Democrat Theresa Gasper, who this news organization has reached out to for comment.

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The inspector general report blamed the VBA’s issues on employees lacking “experience or expertise” to process sexual trauma claims, no additional level of review for claims filed and inadequate training. More specifically, VBA staff was found to have not requested medical examinations, private treatment records, made claims decisions based on “insufficient medical opinions” and did not make required phone calls to vets, according to the report.

The Inspector General report issued six recommendations to the Under Secretary in charge of the VBA. They included assigning sexual-trauma related cases to a specialized group of employees, requiring a review for denied claims and updating training, among other things, according to the report.

The Inspector General plans to monitor the VBA’s implementation of its recommendations but the problems may be a little deeper than the proposed fixes, Christensen said. While the recommendations seem like sound solutions, Christensen said that they’re reflective of a larger problem in how the VA and the military community view sexual assault.

“I think the overarching thing is a cultural change within the VA needs to take place for them to take this seriously,” he said. “It’s a frustrating process for veterans. It’s hit or miss. Some people have really great experiences and some people have really horrible experiences…It has to do with the lack of consistency in how they respond.”

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