Victims of military sexual assault could be eligible for tens of thousands of dollars in retroactive disability benefits under a proposal being unveiled by pair of House lawmakers this week.
The measure is unlikely to become law this year, given the short legislative schedule left before the end of December.
But bill sponsors say they hope to either find a way to fast-track the measure or use it as the basis for similar legislation at the start of the next congressional session, where the idea could be advanced as part of more comprehensive military or veterans legislation.
“This isn’t giving anybody anything they don’t already deserve,” said Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., co-sponsor of the legislation. “This is making good on an injury that they experienced during their service. And we need to make sure that we’re providing equitable compensation.”
Under current rules, veterans who file disability claims within a year of leaving the service can receive benefits retroactive to their date of separation. Individuals who file after that can receive benefits starting with the day they file their case.
However, in cases of military sexual assault, victims may need multiple years to feel comfortable enough with the Department of Veterans Affairs to talk about their trauma and seek benefits, Carbajal said. That means they miss out on months and months of disability benefits payouts.
The new legislation, which Carbajal is sponsoring with Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., would provide benefits back to the date of separation for individuals who are awarded disability payouts for injuries stemming from sexual trauma while still serving.
The idea is similar to a case recently argued before the Supreme Court (Arellano v. McDonough) where plaintiffs argued that VA should award retroactive benefits to veterans whose injuries prevented them from filing claims within those first 12 months.
The court is expected to issue a decision on that matter sometime in late 2022 or early 2023. If they rule in favor of the plaintiff, it is unclear how many cases and what kinds of injuries would be covered for retroactive payouts.
Carbajal said regardless of the outcome of that case, his legislation will ensure that sexual assault victims get the benefits they deserve.
“This is really about making a wrong right,” he said. “And we need to understand that there are unique circumstances with military sexual trauma that are different from other circumstances.”
A 2018 study from the University of Mary Washington estimates that as many as 24% of female veterans and 2% of male veterans experienced some form of sexual assault during their time in the ranks. Those incidents can lead to medical complications such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is no estimate yet for how much the legislation would cost the Department of Veterans Affairs. For a veteran with a 50% disability rating, three years of retroactive benefits would total about $35,000.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.