WASHINGTON - New government figures underscore the staggering long-term consequences of military sexual assaults: More than 85,000 veterans were treated last year for injuries or illness linked to the abuse, and 4,000 sought disability benefits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs' accounting, released in response to inquiries from the Associated Press, shows a heavy financial and emotional cost that affects several generations of veterans and lasts long after a victim leaves the service. Sexual assault or repeated sexual harassment can trigger a variety of health problems, primarily post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. While women are more likely to be victims, men made up nearly 40 percent of the patients the VA treated for conditions connected to what it calls "military sexual trauma."
It took years for Ruth Moore of Milbridge, Maine, to begin getting treatment from a VA counseling center in 2003 - 16 years after she was raped twice while she was stationed in Europe with the Navy. She continues to get counseling at least monthly for PTSD linked to the attacks and is also considered fully disabled.
"We can't cure me, but we can work on stability in my life and work on issues as they arrive," Moore said.
VA officials stress that any veteran who claims to have suffered military sexual trauma has access to free health care.
"It really is the case that a veteran can simply walk through the door, say they've had this experience, and we will get them hooked up with care. There's no documentation required. They don't need to have reported it at the time," said Margret Bell, a doctor and member of the VA's military sexual trauma team.
However, the hurdles are steeper for those who seek disability compensation - too steep for some veterans groups and lawmakers who support legislation designed to make it easier for veterans to get a monthly disability payment.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that reducing the incidence of sexual assaults in the military is a top priority. But it's a decades-old problem with no easy fix, as made even more apparent when an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office was arrested recently on sexual battery charges.