Women make up an increasing proportion of the U.S. armed forces, yet there continues to be a devastating systemic failure on behalf of the military to properly handle sexual assault investigations and to provide appropriate care and benefits to survivors. The experience of one of Public Counsel’s clients illustrates how these failures can contribute to a lifetime of mental and physical health struggles. Fortunately, through years of legal advocacy, and thanks to our client’s courage and determination, we recently were able to secure the care and benefits that she needs to address the trauma that occurred during her service.
Public Counsel’s Center for Veterans’ Advancement met *Lisa through a referral from the Veterans Administration in 2016. At the time, she was seeking mental health care support to cope with the sexual assault she experienced in the Air Force in the mid-1970s. After the assault, Lisa found herself unable to manage the trauma and turned to drinking and self-harm. Over 30 years later, Lisa’s circumstances continued to be shaped by her traumatic experiences as a woman in the military.
“I never got a chance to show my abilities and be a good soldier, I was lost and it made me angry because I wanted to serve.”Lisa
After being discharged from the military, Lisa found herself struggling to stay sober and maintain a job, moving between cities trying to find her footing. Lisa ultimately found a sense of purpose and belonging with the Veterans Affairs Office of West LA, where she helped unhoused veterans find housing and provided peer support to struggling veterans. It was the first time in a long time that she felt she was growing and connecting with her peers.
We had the opportunity to represent Lisa through a six-year appeals process with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to illustrate how her long-term and painful physical symptoms, which were secondary to the psychological trauma, were service-related and necessitated benefits and back pay. Inspired by Lisa’s tenacity, we were able to help her secure her $111,000 in back pay and benefits that she needed in order to move on and pursue a healthy life.
“Lisa’s case really validates the experience of so many sexual trauma survivors from the military, a category that we know is underreported. While the military didn’t handle her situation correctly initially, this decision shows that the VA is both acknowledging the trauma that survivors have been through and providing the support they need.Amanda Pertusati, Supervising Staff Attorney Center for Veterans’ Advancement
*Pseudonym to protect client’s identity