Is there any point in filing a Military Sexual Trauma VA Disability Claim?
You have suffered through the fallout of a sexual assault or sexual harassment during your time in the military – is there any point now in filing a military sexual trauma-related VA disability claim?
Yes, there is. Unlike a formal reporting of the event with the fear or risk of retaliation or other negative consequences, a Military Sexual Trauma VA Disability Claim is a way to obtain monthly, nontaxable compensation to mitigate the financial damage caused by any health condition arising from MST. This article reviews why there are many reasons for filing and how a VA disability attorney may be able to help you.
According to the VA, what is Military Sexual Trauma?
Military sexual trauma, also known as MST, is defined by the VA as sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service. It includes a wide range of events, ranging from forcible sexual assault to non-consensual sexual conduct (including while you were asleep or intoxicated), being pressured or coerced into sexual activities (whether through threats of negative treatment or promises of better treatment), and unwanted sexual advances. Unfortunately, both men and women have had to ensure these things during their military service, either perpetrated by a fellow soldier, superior officer, or sometimes a civilian.
Although there are avenues of formal complaint when any of these happen to soldiers, the truth is that they are infrequently utilized. However, the trauma may have long-term physical and mental consequences that qualify a veteran for disability benefit payments.
MST compensation, or seeking VA disability benefit payments relating to a condition caused by an MST, is not the same as a personal injury lawsuit – it does not seek accountability directly from the perpetrator. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that the VA maintains its responsibility to care for veterans harmed during their service. The disability claim process focuses on your current condition and how it affects your daily life more than the specific details of the underlying MST.
Is there any point in filing a Military Sexual Trauma VA Disability Claim?
The majority of military sexual trauma incidents are not formally reported when they happen. Maybe you are one of those who endured rape, sexual harassment, non-consensual sexual contact when you were intoxicated or asleep, or some other type of MST during your military service. You endured the trauma at the time, figuring you could just power your way past the pain, past the embarrassment, past the humiliation. You tried to just will it away while you suffered in silence. You didn’t make a formal report of what happened for reasons that seemed good, but now you are wondering if it was the best decision, wondering if it’s too late to say anything. Is there any point in filing an MST-related VA disability claim?
If you currently have a disability, such as PTSD, related to a service-connected MST – the answer is “YES.”
You may be worried that proving military sexual trauma to the VA is an impossible task. It is not, and certainly, it is easier than it once was.
The VA understands that MST can cause disabling conditions in veterans. After a fairly rocky start in learning how to handle MST-related disability claims, their knowledge and systems are improving, making it easier for veterans to navigate the VA disability process to prove their claims successfully. In fact, the VA is affirmatively inviting veterans who had an MST claim denied before August 2018 to refile so that their claim is reviewed by staff who have received more advanced training on understanding MST claims.
Before you run off to file your MST disability claim and prove MST to the VA, remember the following: MST is not a disability. Military Sexual Trauma is a triggering traumatic event that can cause physical or mental health conditions. PTSD is a common condition for which a claim is made. Your VA disability claim will be based on your “condition,” not the MST cause, though the VA will ask you to fill out a form describing the details of the MST incident (or series of events).
However, to connect it to your time in the service, you must prove that the MST occurred. Proof of its occurrence for purposes of disability benefits is a different process than for a court-martial or civilian criminal court. The VA disability claims process is non-adversarial. You will not be cross-examined on a witness stand while staring down the person(s) who caused the trauma in the first place. Although an MST often happens in a private setting, making you feel like it becomes a “he said/she said” standoff with only one side determined to be credible, your VA disability claim related to an MST does not work that way. The VA recognizes both the hesitancy to report formally and the proof that something traumatic happened may exist in places other than your service records.
Suppose you have any service or personnel records reflecting MST, formal report documentation to the DOD, and military investigative reports. In that case, that will be part of your proof for your MST claim. However, if those do not exist, you can still use other records. Did you report what happened around the time of occurrence to a chaplain or counselor? Did you contact a rape crisis center? Did you make a civilian criminal report? Maybe you talked to roommates, colleagues, or family members about what happened. Maybe you wrote things down in your personal journal. Perhaps you sought medical or mental health treatment at a civilian treatment center. You can use records from these places or declarations from these persons to prove your claim.
There is also indirect evidence, also known as “markers,” that a trained VA examiner or attorney would recognize. Perhaps your work performance had a marked change, either for the worse or the better. Perhaps you started suffering physical or emotional symptoms that you didn’t even realize might be connected to your MST at the time. Maybe you started having significant personal relationship issues, sexual dysfunction, or erratic behavior. Maybe you got pregnant or tested positive for an STD. Perhaps you started having substance abuse problems.
Finally, understand that there are layers of nuance in an MST claim and, like many other VA disability claims, may be denied on the initial review. Don’t despair, however. You can appeal an MST claim denial and often can successfully turn a denial into a grant of VA disability benefits. Keep reading.
What are the benefits of filing a Military Sexual Trauma Claim?
If you are suffering from the after-effects of military sexual trauma, do not suffer in silence and without treatment. If you are struggling with PTSD or other physical or mental health conditions arising out of an MST, filing an MST-related disability claim may be one of those first steps to reclaiming your life.
One benefit of starting the MST claim process (more accurately or commonly, an MST-related PTSD disability claim) is being able to tell your story, explaining what happened to you and how it affected your life. You cannot undo what happened, but filing a VA disability claim allows you to tell your story finally.
The additional benefit is to obtain monthly monetary compensation to mitigate the financial effects of your MST-related health condition. One of the frequent results of MST is PTSD which interferes with your ability to maintain gainful employment, leading to financial hardship. If you don’t get VA disability benefits approved upon your initial application, that isn’t the end of the process. Within a year you have a right to file an appeal to get a higher-level review of the information already in your claim file, to allow you to add supplemental information that may more fully support your claim, or you can ask for a Board Review hearing and have a real judge listen to you and further review your MST claim.
What can I do if my Military Sexual Trauma Claim is denied? What are the next steps I should take?
Approximately 70% of all initial VA disability claim appeals are denied. However, especially when represented by a VA disability claims appeal lawyer, VA claim appeals have an over 70% chance of a better outcome on appeal. Yes, it’s painful to get that denial letter or a disability rating number that seems too low. Still, you can often turn that decision around with perseverance and assistance.
With recent revisions in appeal processes at the VA, you can file three different types of appeals. Deciding which one makes the most sense for you will be specifically based on your case and why the VA has given you a denial or a lower-than-expected disability rating.
The Higher Level Review appeal asks for another look at the same claims file information by a more experienced examiner. As discussed above, MST-related claims can be nuanced and based on more indirect information than other disability claims. Sometimes a targeted, Higher Level Review will point the examiner to the marker evidence you have already provided, but that got overlooked, as but one example. A Supplemental Claim appeal is a way to provide additional information, information the VA needs to finish up the puzzle pieces of your claim and make it complete so the VA can grant benefits. A Board Review allows you to schedule a live hearing; sometimes, putting a face to the claim and allowing you to explain your situation to a real person makes the difference.
If your MST claim has been denied, first calendar your one-year deadline for filing an appeal, and then explore your options for getting a lawyer to represent you.
Should I contact an attorney to help with my Military Sexual Trauma Claim appeal?
Absolutely. Remember that VSOs that may have helped you with your initial claim has been trained to fill out forms, but lawyers have been trained to advocate for their clients. Just filling out the forms wasn’t enough to get your claim granted on the first review; perhaps you need an experienced VA disability claim appeal attorney to advocate for you.
Veterans Law Group is a niche practice law firm that only handles VA disability claim appeals. We are also one of a very few law firms willing to represent veterans on MST-related claim appeals. We have handled hundreds of cases similar to yours. If you are ready for a free case evaluation from Veterans Law Group, we are prepared to talk to you. If you aren’t quite ready, that’s okay. Bookmark this page and come back when you are ready and before your year appeal deadline is up.