Support for Veterans Leaves Rape Victims Behind


Feb 2, 2024

Rear view of Black female soldier saluting, photo by DanielBendjy/Getty Images

Photo by DanielBendjy/Getty Images

Major Richard Star served honorably in the Army as a combat engineer, deploying multiple times to both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he cleared roads of IEDs. He was medically retired after learning in 2018 that he had stage-four lung cancer from burn pit exposure, after early symptoms were dismissed by doctors while he was still downrange. Because Star's medical retirement came before he hit 20 years of service in the military, he was not eligible to concurrently receive both military retirement pay and VA disability compensation. He began to battle these rules while he was also battling the cancer that would, ultimately, kill him.

Some advocates and legislators are honoring his service, legacy, and untimely passing by continuing that fight in his name. The Major Richard Star Act, which is a top legislative priority of major veterans service organizations—including Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Military Officers Association of America—would allow concurrent receipt of DOD retired pay and VA disability compensation to veterans with a combat-related rating of at least 10 percent, who served in the military for fewer than 20 years. Estimates are that approximately 50,000 veterans would benefit, receiving on average $1,200 in additional monthly support. (Disclosure: My spouse, who already receives Combat Related Special Compensation, would likely be among these beneficiaries.)

While the act would benefit this relatively small group of combat veterans and their families, it leaves behind many more, whose wounds were caused by enemies within the ranks.

Lucy Del Gaudio (PDF) is one of the many veterans who will not be helped, even if this new legislation passes. Del Gaudio had only served on active duty for two years when she was raped by a superior; she reported the assault to her chain of command, which did nothing (PDF). Lacking the health coverage and other benefits that would have come with a medical retirement, Del Gaudio struggled while trying to adjust to her post-military life. Only decades later, after finding her voice as an advocate (PDF) for other survivors, did she finally earn VA benefits. There is still no redress for the decades of solitary suffering she endured without any support from DOD.

Military sexual trauma, a term that encompasses both sexual assault and sexual harassment experienced during military service, is estimated to affect 38 percent of women and 4 percent of men.

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Military sexual trauma (MST), a term that encompasses both sexual assault and sexual harassment experienced during military service, is estimated to affect 38 percent of women and 4 percent of men. MST is a uniquely devastating type of betrayal, as it is often committed by the very comrades whom service members have been trained to trust. And then, it is made worse, in too many cases, by an institutional failure to respond adequately.

Survivors of MST can experience serious negative outcomes, across a wide array of physical and mental health conditions, including elevated rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide, diabetes, hypertension, and pregnancy complications; they are also more likely to experience homelessness. The insidious and interconnected aftermath means victims typically need trauma-informed care and services.

Yet far too many survivors of these atrocious green-on-green attacks are unable to access the generous benefits available to those injured by enemies overseas. Junior enlisted (PDF) personnel, who typically have fewer than three years in service, are at highest risk of experiencing MST. Many who reported in the past were then pushed out of the military with bad papers or administrative separations, for issues such as “personality disorders,” rather than medical retirements.

Recognizing the history of harm, DOD-issued guidance to military review boards gives liberal consideration to those who seek discharge upgrades, and VA provides free care for all MST-related conditions, regardless of other eligibility for VA care. Yet navigating the paperwork requirements to seek these supports can be challenging—particularly for those already trying to manage heavy mental health burdens.

The new guidance and expanded care, while helpful, also fail to provide the full suite of veteran benefits to those assaulted early in their military careers (again, when rates are highest). There is a three-year time-in-service requirement to earn full eligibility for 100 percent of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit—a benefit that Purple Heart recipients automatically receive. Similarly, troops injured in a combat zone and later medically retired also gain access to a military pension, DOD health care, and in many cases generous state-level benefits as well. Those attacked by a battle buddy, who never report being assaulted out of fear of retaliation and quietly leave the military when their first enlistment is up, are not eligible for any of these supports.

Navigating the paperwork requirements to seek supports can be challenging—particularly for those already trying to manage heavy mental health burdens.

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Recognizing both the deep individual harm and lack of equitable institutional support for MST survivors is one reason why the Independent Review Commission (PDF) on Sexual Assault in the Military, on which I served, recommended that the DOD study the methods some of our allies have used to offer redress to survivors of abuse within their armed forces. These include restorative engagement and victim compensation.

All who care about our nation's veterans should also consider stories like Del Gaudio's. Like Star, she was willing to defend our country from foreign combatants, but her career was cut short by enemies within the ranks. MST survivors are already far less likely to qualify for the full range of benefits and services available to those injured in combat, and the United States is doing nothing to rectify this injustice, allowing further inequities to fester.

Kayla Williams is a senior policy researcher at RAND and was on the IRC's Victim Care and Support line of effort. She previously served in the Department of Veterans Affairs in various roles. She is author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir of her deployment to Iraq, and “Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War,” an account of her return and marriage to a fellow veteran with a traumatic brain injury.