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Yale Law School Clinic Represents Veterans in Petition to VA

On behalf of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic has petitioned the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to create new regulations governing the adjudication of disability claims for veterans who were raped or sexually assaulted in the military.

The petition, which was filed on June 27, argues that under the current VA claims adjudication process survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) face frequently insurmountable evidentiary barriers when attempting to claim disability benefits for their mental health disorders. SWAN and VVA are calling for the VA to reform its review of MST-related claims. The petition argues, in part: “New regulations are necessary in light of decades of failed, informal attempts at VA to reform its adjudication of MST-related claims.”

LISTEN TO WNPR REPORT ON THE CASE.

Currently, MST survivors face a greater procedural burden and are denied benefits at a significantly higher rate than other Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) claimants. The VA’s current policy requires those who have experienced MST to produce contemporaneous documentation of a sexual assault. SWAN and VVA argue that service members who are raped or sexually assaulted are unlikely to report an attack, and that MST is exceptionally difficult to document. The petition suggests that the current evidentiary requirements be revised to allow veteran survivors of MST to establish their claim through their own lay testimony, supported by a medical diagnosis.

“We know there's a VA backlog. But we also know MST-related PTSD disability claims face a greater procedural burden, resulting in a longer review process, and are denied at a significantly higher rate than other PTSD claims,” said Anu Bhagwati, SWAN Executive Director and former Marine Corps captain.

“The playing field needs to be leveled with assured equitability for the men and women who endure these humiliating, degrading, and violent acts while serving their country. As veterans, they deserve nothing less,” said John Rowan, National President, Vietnam Veterans of America.

"This petition is particularly important for female veterans, who are more likely than men to suffer PTSD as a result of in-service sexual trauma and who are therefore more likely to have their claims at the VA denied,” said Abigail Graber ’14, a student in the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “At a time when an increasing number of our service members are women, changes at the VA are necessary to ensure that the country keeps its promises to all veterans."

“This work opens a new front – a regulatory campaign by our clients, following the recent demise of meaningful legislation in Congress,” said Professor Michael Wishnie ’93, Yale Law School’s Deputy Dean for Experiential Education and co-director of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “Pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act, VA must provide a reasoned and timely response to SWAN and VVA, and any adverse action by the agency will be subject to judicial review.”

Service Women’s Action Network and Vietnam Veterans of America filed their rule-making petition pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 553(e).