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 Dr. Margret Bell, a 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.
"Right now, the burden of proof is stacked against sexual trauma survivors," said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. "Ninety percent of 26,000 cases last year weren't even reported. So where is that evidence supposed to come from?"
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said 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.
"We will not stop until we've seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated," Obama said after summoning top Pentagon officials to the White House last week to talk about the problem. "Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be."
The VA says 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men screen positive for military sexual trauma, which the VA defines as "any sexual activity where you are involved against your will." Some report that they were victims of rape, while others say they were groped or subjected to verbal abuse or other forms of sexual harassment.
But not all those veterans seek health care or disability benefits related to the attacks. The 85,000 who sought outpatient care linked to military sexual trauma during the latest fiscal year are among nearly 22 million veterans around the country.
The VA statistics underscore that the problems for victims of sexual abuse do not end when someone leaves the service.
Psychological issues, including PTSD, depression and anxiety, are most common, according to the agency. Victims also can develop substance abuse problems.
Some victims like Moore are so disabled that they are unable to work. Others need ongoing care at VA outpatient clinics and hospitals.
In the final six months of 2011, an average of 248 veterans per month filed for disability benefits related to sexual trauma. The VA said the numbers increased by about a third, to 334 veterans per month in 2012, which officials attributed in part to better screening for the ongoing trauma associated with sexual assault. Of those who filed in 2012, about two-thirds were women and nearly a third were men.
"We do a lot more awareness, and as we educate everyone on the potential benefits and that it's OK to come forward, I think you see an increase in reporting," said Edna MacDonald, director of the VA's regional office in Nashville.
To get disability benefits related to sexual trauma, veterans must be diagnosed with a health problem such as PTSD, submit proof that they were assaulted or sexually harassed in a threatening manner and have a VA examiner confirm a link to their health condition.
Many lawmakers and veterans groups support allowing a veteran's statement alone to serve as the proof that an assault or harassment occurred. An examiner would still have to find there's a link to the health condition diagnosed.
The VA's records indicate that veterans seeking compensation related to military sexual trauma had about a 1 in 2 chance of getting their claim approved last year, up from about 34 percent in June 2011.
The VA does not break out the cost of treating and compensating individual veterans for sexual abuse or trauma. A veteran's combination of disabilities is unique to each individual, so it's not able to attribute specific spending levels for individual disabilities.
Benefits depend on the severity of the disability. For example, a veteran with a 50 percent rating and no dependents would get $810 a month. A veteran with a 100 percent rating and a spouse and child to support would get nearly $3,088 a month.
Moore estimates the government's cost for her disability benefits and treatment could well exceed $500,000 over the course of her lifetime. She said she had first sought treatment from the VA in 1991, but was originally denied care. She eventually started getting care through a VA counseling center in 2003. She blames the time lapse for exacerbating the degree of her PTSD, and the expense to the federal government.
"If I had received treatment in 1991, I would not be, or likely not be fully disabled now in 2013," Moore said. "... Literally, my brain has been remapped and there's a lot of brain damage that goes along with my injury."
It wasn't until June 2011 that the VA began recording monthly disability claims related specifically to military sexual trauma. Veterans file claims for conditions that are a result of the trauma, not for MST itself, which made it particularly difficult to track. The VA came up with a special process for doing so in 2010.
There's no time limit to filing a claim. "We have veterans who call our help line who have been assaulted way back in time. They're still suffering from the effects of World War II or Vietnam. I wish I were exaggerating," said Bhagwati, whose organization advocates for female veterans.
The VA's undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, a 27-year veteran and former Air Force general, has required all workers handling disability claims to undergo sensitivity training in dealing with military sexual trauma.
Hickey also assembled a task force to review the claims process for veterans claiming sexual assault or harassment while serving in the military. The group looked at 400 claims and determined that nearly a quarter were denied before all the evidence was presented. That led to another training program on the evidence needed or establishing a PTSD claim connected to military sexual trauma. The approval rate is now much closer, though still slightly behind that for other PTSD claims.
Even though the VA's statistics indicate that a greater percentage of military sexual trauma victims are getting benefits, lawmakers believe more action is required.
"If half of them are being denied their claims, that's still a lot of people, said Rep. Chellie Pingree. Pingree and Sen. Jon Tester are the lead sponsors of the legislation that would allow the veteran's word to serve as sufficient proof that an assault occurred. The legislation is named after Moore, who spent years fighting for disability benefits.
The VA originally opposed Pingree's bill, saying the legislation didn't allow for the minimal evidence "needed to maintain the integrity of the claims process." But VA spokesman Josh Taylor said Thursday that there's been a change of heart and that the VA no longer opposes the legislation.
"VA supports the goals of the legislation, and will continue to work with Congress on the best approach to accomplish it," Taylor said.
An amended version of Pingree's bill passed the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs two weeks ago and could go to the full House as early as this week.
Also on HuffPost:
'Full Battle Rattle'
Rebekah Havrilla, out on patrol in Afghanistan. The former Army sergeant and Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist enlisted in 2004, seeking out job training, education, "some patriotic element" after 9/11 and a way out of South Carolina. "I went in with the idea of making a career out of it," she says. "I thought, I can't be Special Forces, I can't do Rangers because I don't have a penis -- closest thing I can get to actually doing that type of job is EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal]."
Havrilla crouches in the remnants of a "demolition shot" she and her team did of a "bunch of captured enemy munitions" outside of Forward Operating Base Gardez, in Afghanistan. "It's a very male dominated, hypermasculine environment, so you've got to be the tomboy, kind of, 'let's play cowboys and indians. And soldiers,'" she says. But to some, this also meant persistent sexual harassment and even assault.
Havrilla says intense nightmares kept her from sleep, night after night, after she got back from Afghanistan -- until recently, when she moved to New York. Though Havrilla says that at first she suffered from the kind of hyper-vigilance described by fellow combat veterans in urban settings, she loves the city -- namely because it is so different than where she grew up, in a conservative Christian family in rural South Carolina. She is getting her Masters and working for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN).
An early photo of Tia Christopher, who joined the Navy at age 18 in 2000 and was out just under a year later, honorably discharged with a "personality disorder."
Tia Christopher and her friend Aston Tedford at a women veterans retreat in Arizona several years ago. Christopher now works as an advocate for veterans, in particular victims of MSA, and has written guidance on the subject.
Tia Christopher in a favorite photo.
'I'm Beautiful Despite The Flames'
Tia Christopher sent this photo of her recently completed tattoo Friday, Sept. 28. Written in Arabic, she says "her motto" -- which covers scars from her assault -- more literally translates: "Despite the flames that devoured my flesh, I am still beautiful."
Claire Russo in a childhood photo.
Claire & Coconut
Claire Russo pictured at 10 years old, in 1989 with "Coconut." Russo grew up near Washington, D.C., and worked on the Hill. "I was sort of -- well no, a really privileged middle-class kid," she says. "I was just fascinated with the debate, and the decisions the government was making … And I remember a very strong desire to serve."
Claire Russo Salutes Her Cousin
Claire Russo in 2004 at Quantico, right after being commissioned, saluting her cousin Tom Winkle, a Navy lieutenant and pilot. Russo lived with Winkle in San Diego, and was with him the night of her assault, at the Marine Corps Ball. It was Winkle that reported Russo's assault; she did not want to report, being afraid for her career.
Claire Russo (right) with her roommate at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., after finishing a field exercise. Russo says that one of the 30 females in the class of 180 was raped in the barracks while she was at The Basic School.
Claire Russo in a courtyard in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, when she served as the targeting officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. She deployed two weeks after testifying at the discharge hearing of the serviceman who raped her, Douglas Alan Dowson -- he was already in prison.
'Citizen Of Courage'
Claire Russo (front) salutes the flag during the national anthem, before she was given the "Citizen of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office in 2006. Behind her is San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and First Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) Commanding General John Sattler, who Russo says is the "only commander to ever apologize to me for what I experienced."
Russo And San Diego DAs
Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means, Claire Russo and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, after Russo received the "Citizens of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office at Camp Pendleton in 2006.
Down The Aisle
Claire Russo at her wedding to Josh Russo. Lt. Josh Russo was stationed at Camp Pendleton, some 40 miles north, at the time of Russo's assault in 2004. He remains in the military.
Claire And Josh Russo
Claire and Josh Russo on their wedding day, with friends from the Marines.
Russo And Her Motorcycle
"Me on my Russian Minsk 120 cc dirt bike, in Laos. This was one day on an 8 month trip/honeymoon Josh and I took. We rode motorcylces through SE Asia, Australia and went to Africa," Russo describes in a recent email.
Claire Russo in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on a mission with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Army Paratroopers. "I spoke with the district governor that day about how we could help to get a woman working for the Ministry of Womens Affairs working in his district," Russo writes.
Claire, Josh And Genevieve Russo In Paris
Claire Russo and her husband, Josh Russo, and their baby Genevieve, here four weeks old, in Paris. Josh serves in the U.S. Army.
"My 4 week old daughter Genevieve and I in front of a painting of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, who saved the city from the Huns," Russo writes.
Marti Ribeiro In Front Of Village
Marti Ribeiro served with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines over eight years as a combat correspondent.
As a combat correspondent, Marti Ribeiro accompanied medical convoys to remote areas without local doctors. Such clinics were set up in specific locations, so the locals needed significant advance warning of their arrival. When one such convoy came under attack, Ribeiro returned fire, earning her a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/women-at-war-unseen_n_1498291.html#slide=964342">Combat Action Badge</a>, though as a female, she officially should not have been in a position to take fire.
'Afghan Girls On Rooftop'
A photograph of Afghan girls, taken by Marti Ribeiro during her deployment.
Ribeiro In 2006
Marti Ribeiro and an Afghan boy in 2006.
'Soaked To The Bone And Miserable'
Marti Ribeiro titles this photo -- taken in Afghanistan in 2006 -- as "soaked to the bone and miserable."
Marti Ribeiro And Her Daughter Bela
Marti Ribeiro and her daughter, Bela, in San Antonio, Texas.