Military Sexual Trauma (MST) VA Disability Claims Explained
Over the years, awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault occurring during military service has increased. According to the Veterans Health Administration, about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men (that use VA healthcare) report that they have experienced an in-service military sexual trauma (MST) event.
Additionally, the number of claims for PTSD or other conditions resulting from MST has risen significantly over the past several decades.
How Does VA Define Military Sexual Trauma (MST)?
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), military sexual trauma (MST) is a psychological trauma that results from physical assault or battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment. VA defines sexual harassment as repeated and unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual and threatening nature.
If the servicemember experienced sexual trauma while on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty for training, they are considered by VA to have experienced MST. For reference, VA identifies some examples of MST on its website.
When filing an MST VA claim for disability benefits, it is important to note that:
- The identity or characteristics of the perpetrator do not matter. It does not (legally) matter whether the perpetrator was a servicemember (of any rank), a civilian, a male or a female, etc.
- Whether the servicemember was on or off duty at the time does not matter.
- Whether he or she was on or off base at the time does not matter.
Filing a Claim for VA Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Disability Benefits
VA considers MST to be a traumatic event or experience, not a diagnosis. Therefore, VA will not compensate a veteran for MST itself; however, VA will grant service connection for conditions resulting from MST.
The most common diagnosis for MST survivors is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). VA refers to this diagnosis as “PTSD due to MST” in most of its publications and correspondence. Veterans filing a claim for PTSD due to MST can fill out VA Form 21-0781a: Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for PTSD, Secondary to Personal Assault.
However, MST-related claims are not limited to PTSD claims. Though PTSD may be one result of military sexual trauma, MST does not always result in a diagnosis of PTSD. It can also be associated with depression or anxiety, for example, or even a physical diagnosis.
Service Connection for PTSD Due to MST
In general, service connection for PTSD requires:
- A current diagnosis of PTSD by a medical professional;
- Evidence of an in-service stressor (i.e., the event that caused the PTSD); and
- A nexus, or link, between the current PTSD diagnosis and the in-service stressor.
In the case of PTSD resulting from MST, the stressor would be the military sexual trauma event.
Once service connection is established, VA will assign a rating based on the severity of the PTSD secondary to MST. This rating, ranging from 0 to 100 percent in increments of 10, will determine the veteran’s monthly compensation rate.
Importance of Establishing a Stressor in MST Cases
Establishing a stressor is essential to MST-related PTSD claims – not only because a confirmed stressor is necessary for granting service connection (and thus compensation), but also because a plausible stressor is necessary for VA to order a Compensation and Pension (C&P) exam.
At an exam, a VA medical examiner will review the veteran’s entire file and get additional details about the assault and associated symptoms. The VA examiner will then write a medical opinion, which is essentially their judgment of whether the MST event is associated with the veteran’s current PTSD symptoms. These medical opinions carry a lot of weight in deciding VA claims.
Sexual assault is such a personal and sensitive experience that it is often difficult (or even impossible) for an MST survivor to report or document the stressor when it happens. For many valid reasons, veterans often do not report MST events while in service. Therefore, finding credible supporting evidence of a stressor is often more difficult in military sexual trauma cases.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) VA Claims: Potential Evidence & Liberalized Considerations
Fortunately, VA has recognized – after significant prodding from lawmakers and veterans’ advocates – that it is unreasonable to expect all MST survivors to have direct documentation (e.g., service medical records or an official report) of their traumatic event, given the difficulty of reporting.
As a result, the evidence standard for establishing the stressor in certain types of PTSD claims has been liberalized (i.e., made easier). VA allows the claimant to use a wide range of evidence to indicate the event occurred. Since VA adjudicators do not always accurately follow these more liberal standards, it is important to be aware of them in case an appeal is necessary.
MST-related PTSD claims fall under the “personal assault” category of PTSD. For claims that fall under this category, objective documentation of the actual stressor is not necessary.
VA guidelines instruct the adjudicators of military sexual trauma claims to look beyond the claimant’s military records. As a matter of law, the veteran’s failure to report the event at the time cannot be used against them.
Markers for MST in Veterans
When objective documentation does not exist, VA adjudicators are supposed to rely on markers found in the veteran’s service records or post-service records.
The term marker refers to signs, events, or circumstances that indicate, or mark, that the stressor may have occurred. According to VA’s standard training on MST-related claims, any marker appearing during the approximate timeframe of the MST stressor serves as sufficient evidence to go forward with scheduling a C&P exam.
Examples of markers include changes in the individual’s social or economic behavior, requests for transfer, substance abuse, changes in work productivity, or other indicators that the event occurred.
VA identifies two categories of markers: records (other than service records) and behavior changes occurring during service or at a relevant point following service.
VA specifies some examples of records that may contain markers substantiating an MST claim. Sources of records include, but are not limited to:
- Law enforcement authorities
- Rape crisis centers
- Mental health counseling centers
- Pregnancy tests
- Tests for sexually transmitted diseases
- Statements from family members, roommates, fellow service members, clergy members, and more.
VA is required to help veterans find and obtain these records if possible, as per its duty to assist. Every VA Regional Office has at least one MST coordinator that can help gather evidence. Veterans can request a male or female coordinator.
Evidence of behavior changes during the relevant time frame (i.e., after the MST event) constitute a marker. According to VA, manifestations of behavior changes include, but are not limited to:
- Requests for transfer to another military duty assignment;
- Deterioration in work performance;
- Substance abuse;
- Episodes of depression, panic attacks, or anxiety without an identifiable cause; or
- Unexplained economic or social behavior changes.
Service records may include evidence of these changes, such as records of disciplinary action, records of special treatment, or performance evaluations. Adjudicators should mark any reviews that show the veteran was less efficient or competent, more irritable or angry, or less social or positive after the claimed date of the MST event.
Records from after service can also show behavioral changes. For example, treatment for mental disorders or substance abuse can indicate behavioral change as long as the reason for treatment was not another potentially stressful or traumatic incident.
Lay Statements for MST Claims
Lay statements –written statements from the veteran or those familiar with the veteran’s situation—can be very useful in PTSD due to MST claims. Statements from family members, roommates, fellow service members, or clergy members are all potential sources of evidence.
Adjudicators judge the credibility of lay statements on a case-by-case basis. Statements that seem very credible may carry more weight than other types of evidence.
Lay statements produced during the time frame of the claimed stressor or those written years after can both be considered credible, provided they reference the time frame of the stressor. The details in the statement should not conflict with the veteran’s account of the actual event or its aftermath. The writer of the statement should also have personal knowledge of the event and/or how it affected the veteran.
Reevaluations for Pre-December 2011 MST VA Claims
Due to VA’s failure to follow the liberalized standards for MST-related claims, special training began in December 2011 to improve competency. VA retrained all Regional Office personnel who process MST-related claims, as well as the mental health clinicians conducting the examinations related to these claims. This ongoing training focuses on getting VA officials to recognize markers instead of looking for direct, objective evidence.
For this reason, VA allows all veterans who filed MST-related claims before December 2011 to request a reevaluation from their local VA Regional Office.
VA will accept new evidence to be reviewed when a claim is re-evaluated. It is best to send any new evidence with the request for a reevaluation. Military sexual trauma specialists and/or Women Veteran Coordinators can help veterans determine what type of information is best to submit.
Do You Need Assistance with Your VA Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Claim?
VA does not always adjudicate MST claims properly. VA adjudicators often narrowly interpret which diagnoses are considered related to MST and some have limited ideas about what counts as evidence, despite VA’s intentionally liberalized standards. Additionally, some VA staff minimize the importance of reports from non-VA healthcare providers.
If VA denied your MST-related claim, Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD is here to help. The team of experienced and dedicated veterans’ advocates at CCK may be able to help you gather evidence and secure the compensation you deserve.
Call CCK today for a free case review at 800-544-9144.
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