WASHINGTON - Former Marine Tara Johnson says that when she finally got medical care after being sexually assaulted in the military, the Veterans Affairs doctor asked whether she really thought she had been raped.
She left the session so dismayed and discouraged that she hasn't been back to a VA facility. She now gets treatment outside of the VA through her private insurance coverage, she told a congressional committee Friday.
Navy veteran Brian Lewis spoke of the isolation that comes from being a male victim of military sexual assault. He said he was denied access to a support group for military sexual trauma at the Baltimore VA because it was reserved for women. He also felt ostracized when joining a group of combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Men don't have anywhere to go," Lewis said. "Men are emasculated when they talk about this."
Johnson and Lewis, along with other victims of military sexual assault, described for members of Congress the myriad barriers to care that they experienced as they sought help for the emotional problems they still stuffer as a result of being assaulted.
More than 85,000 veterans were treated through the VA last year for injuries or illness linked to sexual abuse. The chief complaints Friday focused on a lack of access to care and a general lack of sensitivity toward their suffering, which they viewed as another betrayal by the government they had tried to serve.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said it was clear that the federal government was not doing enough to help veterans suffering from military sexual trauma.
"It's so frightening, frankly, the testimony we've heard this morning. I know there is great bipartisan support to make this better," said Benishek, the chairman of the House Committee on Veteran's Affairs panel that deals with health issues.
The Pentagon estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year. Much of the attention on the problem has focused on whether prosecutions should be moved outside the military chain of command to an independent group. But lawmakers are also looking at ways to ease access to health care as well as disability benefits for victims once they enter the civilian world.
Air Force veteran Lisa Wilken told lawmakers that she still deals on a daily basis with being raped 20 years ago. She said part of the reason the health problems are so longstanding is that most victims are already far behind in their recovery by the time they get to the VA. She also said that some victims simply don't trust the VA enough to seek care because their medical facilities remind them so much of the military. She recommended that the VA make greater use of mental health providers in the private sector.
"We need the ability to go outside of the VA," Wilken said.
Dr. Rajiv Jain, an assistant deputy undersecretary with the VA, said he would raise her recommendation with the department.
"It's clear there are some areas of gaps," Jain told the subcommittee
Jain said veterans do not need to have a disability rating or other documentation to get care for military sexual trauma. He noted that demand for services has been increasing and that the number of patient visits related to military sexual trauma jumped 13 percent last year. He also said that nearly 99 percent of VA patients last year were screened for military sexual trauma .
However, Johnson said that when she entered the VA system in October 2010, she was never specifically asked if she had experienced military sexual trauma. And like many victims, she was reluctant to bring it up herself. Once she finally brought it out into the open, she was hoping for more support.
"I yearned for validation in a safe environment," she said. "I did not get this."