WASHINGTON -- After decades spent trying to suppress memories that nearly destroyed her life, Ruth Moore would have been forgiven had she struggled with the words Wednesday as she recounted being raped as a young Navy enlistee and the ensuing years of trauma.
However, with her husband and young daughter seated close behind, Moore was resolute as she told members of Congress about the attack, the ensuing cover-up and her discharge from the Navy on a false medical diagnosis. She also told them how she discovered her medical files had been destroyed and recalled her decades-long fight for military veteran's benefits.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this process took me 23 years to resolve, and I am one of the fortunate ones," Moore, a Maine native who now lives in Milbridge, said as she read her testimony. "It should not be this way. If I had been treated properly and received benefits in a timely manner back at the time of my discharge, my life would have been much different."
Moore, 43, told her story during a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing exploring why so many victims of "military sexual trauma," or MST, are having trouble receiving disability benefits from the Veterans Administration.
Statistics show that Moore is far from alone.
The Department of Defense estimates that up to one in every four women serving in the military will be abused or assaulted sexually. Incidence rates among men are lower, but in both cases the vast majority of the abuses -- as much as 87 percent -- are not reported.
Speakers on Wednesday attributed the dismal 13 percent reporting rate largely to military culture. Sexual-assault victims fear being punished or retaliated against if they report the incident in an environment where "unit cohesion" is paramount. Then years later, often still suffering from the traumatic events, they are frequently denied VA disability benefits because physical proof is lacking.
Military sexual trauma victims are more likely to suffer from depression and disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome and to become homeless.
"Simply put, MST has devastated the veterans' community," said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain who is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network.
Moore offered her own dark experiences as evidence.
An 18-year-old just out of boot camp, Moore was stationed in the Azores when she was raped twice by a petty officer, her superior. She reported the incident to a chaplain, but she received little to no help even as her life "spiraled downward." Her assailant was never punished.
After a suicide attempt, she ended up in a military hospital psychiatric facility and was honorably discharged later with "borderline personality disorder." She claims she was never treated for her rape.
"In hindsight, it was easier for the military to get rid of me than admit to the rape," she said.
The incident scarred Moore personally, resulting in a failed marriage, trouble keeping jobs, panic attacks, night terrors, migraines and additional thoughts of suicide. The VA denied her disability benefits twice -- in Maine and Florida -- before she was granted partial benefits in 2009.
Moore was finally given access to a military sexual trauma coordinator in Vermont in 2009 who helped her gain additional benefits. The coordinator also realized that many of her medical records had been expunged -- a common practice until recently that still happens today, Bhagwati and others said.
"I am asking you -- no, pleading with you -- to please consider favorably the legislation that would prevent this from happening to others," Moore said.
That legislation, sponsored by Maine's U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, would lower the burden of proof for disability benefits for veterans suffering from PTSD because of sexual trauma. It would place more stock in veterans' testimony, eliminating the need for physical proof -- such as medical records -- that are often long gone or never existed because the service member did not report the incident.
Essentially, it would bring the standard of proof to the same level required for service members suffering from PTSD from combat or other causes. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2010, only one-third of sexual trauma-related PTSD requests were approved, compared to 54 percent for all other claims, according to figures supplied by the Service Women's Action Network.
Pingree said Wednesday that there has been "a tremendous change in attitude" at both the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs toward sexual-trauma victims and benefits. Pingree said more progress is needed and that the VA needed to start giving victims of sexual trauma the benefit of the doubt.
Col. Alan Metzler, a deputy director at the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, testified that the military has taken many steps to address the underreporting problem and handling of complaints. Those include creating a 24/7 crisis helpline for sexual-assault victims, strengthening victim privacy policies and enhanced training for officers and enlisted leaders.
"What we need to do is ensure that we teach every single member of our armed forces that if there is ... sexual violence being committed against them, that we will take those reports seriously, that we will investigate them fully and that we will hold offenders accountable," Metzler said.
Subcommittee members said they had heard talk of "zero-tolerance" policies before, yet the vast majority of assaults continue to go unreported and those who seek benefits afterward are still turned away.
After VA officials said existing policies could accommodate disability requests for sexual trauma adequately, subcommittee chairman Jon Runyan, R-N.J., said more needs to be done.
"If the VA were a private company, you wouldn't be in business very long, because you wouldn't have very many happy customers," Runyan said.
After the hearing, Moore and her family lingered in the committee room as people thanked them for making the trip to Washington to testify. Although the emotions of it all were starting to peek though, Moore said she was pleased with the hearing and with her decision to go public with her story.
"The committee was very generous," Moore said. "I think they truly heard the message. I think a lot of good is going to come of this today."
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