Lawsuit alleges VA board bias against male military victims of sexual trauma

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven on Wednesday alleges bias against male veterans seeking disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for military sexual trauma, and seeks to force the VA to release records on the handling of these cases.

Curt Cashour, VA press secretary, said by email Wednesday that the VA does not typically comment on pending litigation.

Veterans can receive disability compensation from the VA if they can prove that they suffer, for example, from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health conditions as a result of being sexually assaulted or harassed.

Two nonprofit groups that work with male veterans who are victims of sexual assault, Protect our Defenders and the Connecticut Veteran Legal Center, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, are concerned about how these cases are being handled by the VA board that adjudicates claims for disability benefits after members of the board allegedly made homophobic, racist and sexist remarks via their government emails and in an online forum.

In some of the messages, they "referred to male VA employees as 'butt buddies' and speculating about whether male coworkers engaged in oral sex with one another," according to the lawsuit. The two nonprofits are being represented by student law interns with Yale's Veterans Legal Services Clinic in the suit.

In March 2016, the VA announced it was recommending disciplinary action against three attorneys on the board "for reasons of misconduct based on information received as part of an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation that revealed a pattern of inappropriate emails that were racist and sexist in tone."

The department also announced then that it had filed a complaint against two board judges.

Protect our Defenders and the Connecticut Veteran Legal Center asked the VA through a Freedom of Information Act request for records relating to the decisions made by individual veterans law judges, broken down by gender and type of disability claim. They received data from the VA, but it was not broken down in the way they requested, so they were unable to determine if any bias exists, said Alyssa Peterson, one of the law student interns working on the case.

"The issue is that the VA has not, to our knowledge, conducted a full-scale investigation into whether the claims were tainted by these individual judges or whether there's a broader culture of bias toward male vets when applying for disability benefits," Peterson said by phone Wednesday.

Research has shown that men are less likely to report being victims of sexual assault. Reasons for this vary, but some males feel they won't get help because they won't be believed. "Men who are sexually assaulted while serving are often disbelieved because of the pernicious myth that 'men don't get raped,'" retired Col. Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the United States Air Force and president of Protect Our Defender, said in the release announcing the lawsuit.

Before 2011, male service members also were at risk of being thrown out of the military for homosexual conduct for reporting sexual assault by a male due to the Don't Act, Don't Tell policy, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The policy was repealed in December 2010.


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