On Monday, The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education in Stamford hosted a viewing of "Invisible War," an award-winning documentary about sexual assault in the military. More servicemembers who have experienced this trauma are starting to file claims with the VA.
Margaret Middleton is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. She represents veterans including those who need help filing claims with the VA for benefits. Some have developed health problems because they've experienced what's known as military sexual trauma, or MST. The euphemism stands for rape and sexual assault. Middleton says until recently, the military didn't acknowledge the problem.
Historically the culture of the military hasn't been open to the reality that this is a problem particularly for female soldiers. And as women increasingly join the military and their ranks within the military grows, this issue is getting a lot more attention and people are more willing to speak out."
The Department of Defense estimates more than 19,000 sexual assaults happened in 2010 only 13.5 percent were reported. Middleton says stigma is one of the reasons that both women and men in the military have trouble getting help once they leave the service. "They often didn't report the crime at the time because there may have been a challenge in terms of their commanding officer, the culture of their unit may not have been supportive, there are a lot of reasons and stigmas associated with these crimes in the military. "As a result, proving these claims after the fact to help veterans get the benefits they deserve can be a real challenge." There's been increasing attention to the problem that's causing the military to take notice. In April, the Defense Department announced it was creating special units manned by investigators and prosecutors who are trained to deal with sexual assault cases. The DOD also wants military branches to track how reported assaults are handled and how perpetrators are punished. Meanwhile legal advocates like Middleton are helping veterans find circumstantial evidence that shows a sexual assault has lasting effects. She says there needs to be a rule change within the VA that doesn't require a servicemember to provide documentation of an assault in order to prove they have a health condition like PTSD.