An undeniable error at the VA, and hope that a wrong will be made right

On Thursday, May 29, Ruth Moore of Milbridge got a phone call from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As a military sexual assault survivor, she would receive $405,000 in back benefits for claims relating to the assaults that she had been denied previously by the veterans administration. She had been fighting for the recognition and apology for years.

In the U.S. Navy, she was sexually assaulted twice by a supervisor. Once was after she went to the military chaplain for help. She grew despondent, tried to kill herself, and for doing so was thrown in the military jail. Sent to a psychiatric ward, she was wrongly diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She told the BDN that military higher-ups denied the rapes had happened.

She is not alone. In 2012, one in five female veterans and one in 100 male veterans told the VA they had been sexually abused in the military. The effects of sexual assault can be debilitating, but determining that an assault occurred — a necessary step to make disability claims — is rarely easy. In recent years, the VA has allowed behavioral changes to be entered as evidence for sexual trauma claims.

And Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has introduced the Ruth Moore Act to continue to reduce the standard of proof for victims so they can more easily get benefits. She has also helped Moore fight for her back benefits. There is still work to do to ensure military survivors of sexual assault can successfully maneuver the claims process.

On June 9, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report detailing how approval rates for claims based on military sexual trauma vary widely among regional offices, ranging from 14 to 88 percent in fiscal year 2013.

Variation on its own does not mean a problem, but the follow-up interviews did. Veterans Benefits Administration staff said they had difficulty applying the standards, and the study found “several instances of widely varying interpretations.” It also found variation in the thoroughness of medical exams performed to determine whether sexual violence had occurred.

The GAO recommended the VA improve training, conduct more outreach to ensure veterans who may have been wrongly denied claims can resubmit them, and improve how it analyzes whether it’s doing its job. For instance, it does not systematically collect information about why claims are denied, which could help the administration catch possible problematic trends, according to the GAO.

Recently, Phil Black, who handles public relations for the Veterans Benefits Administration at Togus, offered written responses to questions about Moore’s case. Black said the administration wants more people to come forward if they believe their claims were wrongly denied.

What did the VA say when it called Ruth Moore recently to inform her she will receive $405,000 in back benefits?

Ms. Moore was contacted by telephone to make her aware of the decision to grant her benefits retroactive to 1993. During this conversation, we acknowledged there was a “clear and unmistakable error” discovered while reviewing all the evidence of record that allowed the VA to amend its previous decision regarding her effective date. A “clear and unmistakable error” is a legal term used by the VA to amend or reverse a previous decision that was final and binding.

How did the VA come to this decision to grant back benefits?

Ms. Moore’s file contained additional evidence that was not available when she filed her first claim and was not taken into consideration in a subsequent claim. After this review, the decision maker determined that the totality of the evidence showed we should have awarded an effective date in 1993.

Why do you think this decision is an important one for the VA and the military? How does it change previous practice?

This decision is based on the evidence of record for Ruth Moore and does not affect other veterans who have filed claims that they suffer a disability as a result of sexual trauma. However, the VA is aware of the sensitive nature of these claims and the fact that military records do not always contain evidence of the in-service sexual trauma event. For that reason, and to provide veterans with the greatest possible consideration of available evidence supporting their claims, VA is inviting veterans to ask for reconsideration if their claims for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of military sexual trauma claims were previously denied.

If people believe their claim was wrongly denied, they may call 800-827-1000 or visit the second floor of Building 248 at the Togus regional office.


Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.