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US Survivors of Military Sexual Assaults Seek Better Treatment

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Cindy Saine
— Four U.S. military veterans who are survivors of military sexual assaults testified Friday before a House of Representatives Veterans' Affairs subcommittee. They asked for better care and treatment for their trauma from the U.S. Veterans Administration.

The U.S. Defense Department released a study in May estimating that as many as 26,000 military members were victims of sexual assault in the military last year.  

The Republican Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health, Dan Benishek, broke that number down.

"Last fiscal year there were roughly 71 incidents of sexual assault every single day among those who wear our uniform," said Benishek.

Four veterans who were victims of sexual assault traveled to Washington, D.C., to tell lawmakers their story and to ask for changes in the way survivors are treated. Victoria Sanders is a U.S. Army veteran who was raped by a fellow soldier when she was 20 years old.

"When you report a rape, you become public enemy number one; no one will talk to you, and if they do, it is to tell you you got what you deserved," she said.

Sanders said her commanders dismissed the crime and the subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered. She said the culture in the U.S. military must change.

Lisa Wilken is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and she agreed that military assault victims are treated unfairly.

"The treatment that we receive when we report an assault in the military, it is as if we are the perpetrator, we are the ones who are put under the microscope," said Wilken.

Wilken said the culture in the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] medical facilities mirrored the dismissive culture toward sexual assault within the military. All four survivors at the hearing said assault victims should be able to receive treatment outside the VA system if they request it.

"VA is fundamentally incapable of providing care to survivors of military sexual trauma in the current environment," said Brian Lewis, a U.S. Navy veteran and a survivor of sexual assault.

Lewis also complained that the VA sees the issue of sexual assault as a women's problem and denigrates the experience of male survivors.

After listening to the testimony of the four veterans, a senior Department of Veterans Affairs official at the hearing, Rajiv Jain, said he appreciates the urgency of the situation. He promised "a very critical look at how we have structured services and what can we do to address some of the gaps, and frankly they made a lot of wonderful suggestions that we would also want to consider."

Both Democratic and Republican members of the committee vowed to keep working to get better treatment for veterans who are assault survivors. There also is a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to take prosecution of military assault cases outside the military's chain of command, but the Pentagon is strongly opposed to the idea.

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