A bipartisan pair of lawmakers wants to ensure veterans who are survivors of military sexual trauma can get retroactive disability benefits even if they wait years to report the incident.
A bill unveiled Tuesday by Reps. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., and Don Bacon, R-Neb., would allow veterans claiming disability benefits because of military sexual trauma to collect back benefits from the date of their separation from the military, rather than the date they make the claim.
"Our veterans deserve better when it comes to this historically underreported injury, especially as we acknowledge the stigma around this issue," Carbajal said in a statement Tuesday. "That's why I've worked across the aisle with Congressman Bacon -- a fellow veteran in Congress -- to craft legislation to deliver restitution for these survivors of sexual trauma and justice for the many veterans who we know faced these injuries while serving our nation."
Right now, veterans must file a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs within a year of leaving the military in order for benefits to be retroactive to the date of their separation.
Veterans can still file a disability claim at any point in their life after that, but the benefits will only start from the date of their filing.
But it is not uncommon for survivors of sexual trauma to take years to feel comfortable enough to report the incident or incidents. For example, Carbajal said the bill was inspired by a constituent of his who was granted benefits for PTSD related to military sexual trauma 25 years after the incident happened.
The VA estimates that about one in three female veterans and one in 50 male veterans experienced sexual trauma in some form during their service.
Congress, which is on recess right now until after the November elections, has just a few legislative weeks before the end of the year, dimming the prospect for the bill to pass soon. The measure would need to be reintroduced next year to be considered then.
The bill is being introduced while the Supreme Court is deciding a case centered on the VA's one-year deadline for retroactive benefits.
Last week, the high court heard arguments in a case in which a veteran holds that a service-connected disability left him unable to fill out the claims forms within the first year after he left the military and so the deadline should be waived.
A lawyer for the veteran in the Supreme Court case previously told Military.com a decision in his favor would likely affect a limited number of veterans who would have to prove they had extraordinary reasons for not filing a disability claim within their first year.
The bill from Carbajal and Bacon, called the Veteran Restitution and Justice Act, would ensure that regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court case, military sexual trauma survivors could get retroactive benefits.
"Sexual assault in the military happens too often and can leave veterans with injuries, trauma, anxiety and depression," Bacon said in a statement. "Changing the effective date of when veterans receive payment is critical to them getting the treatment resources needed to recover faster."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.