The Department of Veterans Affairs approves claims for post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual assault at significantly lower rates for men than women -- a gap the former director of the VA's Center for Women Veterans says shows "systematic discrimination" against men in an era of #MeToo.
In an editorial published Feb. 11 by The Hill, Kayla Williams, a senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, said the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has closed a gap that once existed between approval rates for combat-related PTSD and claims for military sexual trauma (MST), but a disparity still exists between the genders for MST-related claims.
The grant rate in 2018 for sexual-trauma PTSD claims was 57.7 percent for women and 44.7 percent for men. While those rates represent a large increase from the respective 41 percent and 26.9 percent approval rates in 2011, they show a continued lack of understanding within the VBA of the scope of the problem among men, Williams said in an interview Feb. 14.
Women in the military, who make up just 15 percent of the total force, do get assaulted at higher rates, statistics show. But more than half of all survivors of sexual assault in the military are men. And male victims are less likely to report sexual assault, often dismissing an incident as hazing or harassment, according to Williams.
Because they are less likely to report, men don't have a paper trail or proof to back their disability compensation claims for MST-related PTSD, which are subsequently dismissed, she said.
She added that there is a cultural bias within the VBA that "doesn't think this happens to men."
"This is thought of as a women's problem," Williams said. "Even when I've talked to senior leaders in the military, I raise certain [hazing] practices -- you've heard of 'tea-bagging' -- and they don't realize it's sexual assault. For someone who has been a victim of sexual assault as a child or anyone who doesn't want someone's genitals pressed onto their face, it is sexual assault."
In 2011, the VA launched a concerted effort to close the gap between PTSD claims granted for military sexual trauma and those granted for combat and other causes. The effort raised the approval rate for MST claims by 20 percentage points. In 2018, the approval rate was 56.6 percent for MST-related claims while the PTSD grant rate for other traumas was 54 percent.
Williams said she noticed the gender disparity for MST claims while serving as director of the women's center from 2016 to 2018, adding that she told VBA officials of the difference but "they didn't believe they had a problem."
She did not raise her concerns with higher-ups, saying that it isn't a secretarial-level concern.
She believes the VBA could solve the problem by training claims reviewers specifically on male military sexual trauma and bias. She also recommends that supervisors conduct spot checks of claims.
"If you look at the improvements that VA was able to make in accepting women's claims, I really think this is a solvable problem. ... Men deserve equitable disability compensation from VA," she said.
The VA did not respond to a request for comment.