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Two top veterans groups filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, claiming VA experts make it far tougher for military-rape victims to prove their PTSD symptoms were caused by sex assaults suffered in the ranks.
According to the suit brought by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America, VA officials consistently impose a higher burden on military-rape survivors than they do all other veterans when it comes to verifying their reports of post-traumatic stress disorder.
That disparity is a form of “discrimination,” the advocates assert, and violates the Fifth Amendment.
In an email to NBC News, Ndidi Mojay, a VA spokeswoman, said the agency is "unable to comment" specifically on pending litigation involving the federal government.
But Mojay did address the claim more generally, writing: "Meeting the needs of Veterans who have experienced Military Sexual Trauma is of the highest importance to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The department is working very hard to ensure that these claims are adjudicated compassionately and fairly, with sensitivity to the unique circumstances presented by each individual claim.”
The lawsuit casts a hard focus on the VA office tasked with assessing whether disability claims have merit and are worthy of federal compensation: The Veterans Benefits Administration.
“Veterans are experiencing betrayal trauma,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN who served as a Marine officer from 1999 to 2004.
“There’s the devastation that happens with the military from that horrible (sexual) violation. There’s another betrayal that often happens when their commander or your fellow service members don’t believe you,” Bhagwati said. “And there’s the third betrayal from the VA … The Veterans Benefits Administration is really where hope goes to die.”
The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C.
SWAN and the Vietnam veterans group further allege that VA assessors deny rape survivors’ PTSD claims at a “significantly higher rate” than they do PTSD claims filed by veterans who say combat exposure triggered their stress symptoms.
From 2009 to 2012, according to statistics cited Wednesday by the plaintiffs, VA officials authorized PTSD claims filed by the survivors of military sexual trauma as much as 30 percent less often when compared to other service-related PTSD claims.
In response, Mojay said VA data for fiscal year 2013 showed the "grant rate" for PTSD claims based on military sexual trauma was within 6 percentage points of the approval rate for all service-linked PTSD claims.