How Long Does a VA Military Sexual Trauma Claim Take?
It has likely been a long time since you were sexually assaulted or harassed during your time in the service. Now that you finally have taken the step to apply for VA disability benefits for the PTSD it has caused, you are wondering how long it will take to process the claim.
This article will give you some information on how long it takes to process VA disability claims.
What is Military Sexual Trauma?
The VA uses the term “military sexual trauma” to refer to any sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service, by men or women, and by a perpetrator who may or may not also be in the military.
This can include things like non-consensual sexual conduct, including when you were asleep or intoxicated, being pressured into sexual activity through threat or inducement, and non-consensual sexual touching, including during hazing. It also includes comments about your body or sexual activities that you considered threatening.
Military Sexual Trauma, or MST, is not a “condition” or “disability” in and of itself. However, it can lead to disabling conditions, such as PTSD. What that means is that MST can be a triggering trauma that develops into PTSD weeks, months, sometimes even years later.
For purposes of VA disability claims and VA disability ratings, MST claims are reviewed and rated using the same criteria as PTSD claims.
How Long Does a VA Military Sexual Trauma Claim Take?
As noted above, an MST disability claim is actually processed as a PTSD (or other physical or mental disability) claim using the same criteria and rating system. Although the analysis of a PTSD claim with a triggering event of an MST may involve more complex analysis, there is no indication that the MST claim process is any longer than other VA disability claims.
The VA estimates that the initial application review process takes three to four months from the filing of the application until a decision letter is sent out.
As of August 2021, the VA reported that the grant rate of MST-related PTSD claims was 72% – a dramatic increase from 50% in 2015. This is likely the result of the VA finally providing specialized training for staff who work on MST-related cases. They have even stated that veterans who have had their MST-related claims denied before August 2018 should request re-evaluation. You can contact an MST Outreach Coordinator online or at a local VA Regional Office.
If the initial decision is a denial or a lower VA disability rating than you believe it should be, then the process is going to take longer. You have a year from the date of your decision letter to file an appeal.
Under newly implemented procedures, VA claim appeals process has three different pathways: a Higher Level Review, Supplemental Claim, or Board Hearing.
The Higher Level Review involves only a review of the same claim file materials by a more experienced examiner and thus is likely to be processed quicker than the other two pathways.
A Supplemental Claim allows you to add additional information to your claim file before a new decision is made, and a Board Hearing allows you to explain your case in real-time with a hearing judge. Naturally, both of those pathways are likely to take longer. On average, the appeal process can range from 6 months to years depending on many factors. There are often additional appeals that can be taken after a first one if the need is there, so cases can extend longer.
Don’t jump to the quickest type of appeal, however.
A well-supported and successful claim is better than a quick and wrong one. This is where hiring an experienced VA disability claim appeal attorney is useful. A law firm that has handled thousands of similar claims is better equipped to evaluate your claim and map out a plan to make it easy for the VA to agree with you and change their decision on your disability claim.
What Can You Do To Speed It Up – If Anything?
Much of the timeline for processing your MST-related VA disability claim is outside of your control. There are procedures to follow, paperwork to collect, and evaluations to be done. These things take time. However, there are some things you can do to streamline the VA disability process by anticipating what evidence will be needed for your claim.
Remember that VA examiners are going to be looking at three things in making their claims decisions: (1) does the veteran have a current disabling condition; (2) is it the result of, or aggravated by, something that happened during military service; and (3) is there a link between the two?
As is now better understood, evidence establishing these things may be a bit more muddled in an MST claim unless they know where to look. If you have service records directly establishing the MST event such as medical or personnel records, DOD sexual assault or harassment reporting forms, or investigative reports completed during military service, these will need to be located and included in your claim file. However, because such reports often don’t exist, the VA will accept other types of records to establish the MST event.
These include reports made to a chaplain or clergy, civilian counseling facility or health clinic, rape crisis center, faculty, family members or roommates, fellow service members, civilian medical records, civilian law enforcement records, or personal journals or diaries. Only you are going to know how to identify which of these people or places might have records to support your claim. Create a list. Find contact addresses and phone numbers. Collect records you still have in your possession.
You may also know about, and be able to assemble, indirect evidence of your MST. Some examples that the VA consider are changes in work performance around that timeframe, episodes of anxiety, depression, panic attacks without any other clear cause, pregnancy and/or SDT tests, relationship issues (breakups, divorces), requests for transfer to another duty assignment, sexual dysfunction, alcohol or other substance abuse, and unexplained social or economic behavior.
Your VA disability claim appeal attorney may also suggest that you get an independent medical examination as part of a Supplemental Claim or Board Hearing appeal.
All of these things may not affect the time the VA takes to process your claim, but it can speed up preparation for an appeal or various submissions during the appeals process. Sometimes this type of evidence will take some work to find. Getting started sooner rather than later is best.
Inevitably, you will need to have patience and wait for the VA to evaluate your claim, but be ready to provide any additional requested information from either the VA or your attorney. There are also things you can do while you wait for the VA disability claims process to play out. The VA provides MST-related healthcare services that are separate from the disability claims process. Contact the MST Coordinator at your local VA medical facility to get more details.
If your claim is denied, should you consult a VA Disability Claim Appeal Attorney?
Yes, absolutely. You have nothing to lose. The reality is that a lot of VA disability claims get denied on the initial decision. However, a lot of those initially denied claims are modified through the appeal process.
You have only seen one MST-related disability claim – yours. An experienced VA disability claim appeal attorney has seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar cases which enables them to review your case with an eye toward taking the positive findings in your initial decisions and building on them to make a case for the VA to approve your claim. They have the resources to locate necessary information and compile it in a way that a VA claim examiner or hearing judge will understand. In most cases, this expert assistance with your claim comes at no upfront cost. Most VA disability claim appeals attorneys don’t get paid unless and until you get paid.
Veterans Law Group helps veterans with all types of VA disability claim appeals but has a special interest in handling MST-related claims. Are you ready to have the VLG staff do a free evaluation of your case to see if they can help you?