How to File a Successful VA MST Claim
Sexual harassment and assault, unfortunately, happens in the military with some frequency. Fortunately, however, the VA recognizes this and provides disability benefits for the resulting trauma, referred to as “military sexual trauma” or “MST.”
In this post, we’ll explain how to successfully file an MST disability claim with the VA.
What is Military Sexual Trauma?
Any service member can experience MST, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or military rank. Sometimes the offending party is a fellow soldier, and sometimes a superior officer. Sometimes the offender is a civilian.
The VA uses the term “military sexual trauma” (MST) to refer to sexual assault or harassment against a service member during his/her period of service. MST includes any sexual activity or threats of sexual activity directed at a soldier against his/her will.
- Being pressured or coerced into sexual activities, such as with threats of negative treatment if you refuse to cooperate or with promises of better treatment in exchange for sex
- Someone having sexual contact with you without your consent, such as when you were asleep or intoxicated
- Being physically forced to have sex
- Being touched in a sexual way that made you uncomfortable
- Repeated comments about your body or sexual activities
- Threatening and unwanted sexual advances
How to File a Successful MST Claim
Recognizing a Possible MST Claim
The first step to obtaining VA disability compensation for MST is to recognize whether you may have a claim. There can be a significant lag time, sometimes many years from the time of the MST incident, to when mental health symptoms begin to manifest themselves. Like other types of psychological or physical trauma, MST can cause severe mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, substance abuse, and many others. The VA recognizes MST cases as PTSD from a Personal Assault.
Symptoms you may experience could include:
- Disturbing memories or nightmares
- Deep-seated fear or discomfort in dealing with the same gender of the assailant
- Chronic anxiety and panic attacks
- A need to avoid people
- Difficulty feeling safe
- Feelings of depression or numbness
- Problems with alcohol or other drugs
- Feeling isolated from other people
- Problems with anger, irritability, or other strong emotions
- Issues with sleep
- Physical health problems
Two Proof Requirements for an MST Claim
The proof requirements for an MST claim are the same as for all VA mental disorder claims. Because most MSTs lead to a diagnosis of PTSD, they are usually handled as PTSD claims.
There are two important parts to an MST claim: (1) “credible evidence” of the trauma-inducing event; and (2) a “nexus” or connection between that event and the resulting trauma symptoms. This may sound difficult, but it is not an insurmountable task.
A PTSD claim (and thus also MST claims) has a unique requirement, which is not applicable to other VA mental health disorder claims. This requirement is that Credible Evidence of the Occurrence of the Trauma is provided (“Credible Evidence requirement”).
What this means is that you must come forward with evidence, other than your own testimony or statements, showing that the alleged in-service trauma actually occurred.
The best evidence of the occurrence of trauma is a contemporary military report or documentation of the trauma, but there are other types of evidence too.
The VA understands that sometimes no contemporaneous report was made. Many victims of MST have kept quiet about the incident due to embarrassment, shame or fear. Often no immediate official military report is made because the soldier thinks they can deal with it on their own. Because the VA understands this reality, it allows MST claimants to satisfy the Credible Evidence requirement by other means, so-called “markers,” or circumstantial evidence of your emotional reaction to the MST.
Some examples of markers are:
- Records from official sources of law enforcement of rape crisis centers or mental health counseling centers
- Hospitals or medical treatment records for sexually transmitted diseases at or near the time of MST
- Statements from family members, roommates, clergy members, or friends to whom the service member might have confided about the MST
- Military personnel records showing a decline in behavior or performance soon after the MST
- Medical records showing irregular eating patterns, or noticeable weight gain or loss soon after the MST
In addition, you must show a nexus or causal link between the MST and your current mental illness, the so-called “Nexus Requirement.”
Only a written opinion from a mental health practitioner (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist) can satisfy the Nexus Requirement. You can provide a report from your own practitioner, or the VA will schedule an examination.
Even if you provide your own doctor’s report, the VA will typically schedule a claimant for a psychological examination at one of its mental health facilities, and the examiner will prepare a report. At these examinations, you must be sure to give the examiner the full history of the trauma and a full account of your current symptoms.
At your psychological examination, do not minimize or play down your symptoms. You may have been trying to “tough it out” ever since the traumatic event occurred, minimizing its impact on your life.
However, if you are reading this article, your trauma symptoms may have become severe enough that you cannot ignore them anymore. During your examination is the time to lay it all on the table, as horrible as the symptoms may seem and as much as you want to ignore them. Talk to those closest to you about things they have observed in your behavior also.
They may be seeing patterns in your behavior that you haven’t yet recognized.
If the initial claim determination you receive either denies your MST claim or is rated at a lower percentage than you think is appropriate, there are still many steps that can be taken to change that decision. VA disability claims are often modified upon appeal and a law firm that specializes in veteran claims can help you do that without you having to pay any legal fees upfront.
Tips and Reminders for MST Claims
Recognize whether you might have a military sexual trauma claim. Know the symptoms in case a veteran friend or family member might be suffering from MST.
Collect evidence you have to show when and what sexual harassment or assault you suffered.
Talk to a professional to get a diagnosis and clarity on your mental health situation. Get a written opinion letter from them, if they are willing.
File your VA Disability Claim. If you need help following an initial ratings determination, contact a law firm that specializes in this type of claim. There’s a good chance they can help you.
If you are a victim of military sexual trauma and are struggling, wait no longer before pursuing a VA disability claim. These claims can be successfully proven and compensation awarded even if no formal complaint was lodged at the time.
You don’t need to continue ignoring the psychological effects of Military Sexual Trauma. Disability benefits are available through the VA for veterans suffering from MST. If you need to initiate a new claim, contact a VSO in your area to help you prepare your claim, keeping in mind the information above.
Our office works with many veterans pursuing PTSD disability benefits due to MST cases.
If you have been denied your PTSD claim, or you feel you were underrated, please contact Veterans Law Group.