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Kaitlynne Hetrick | April 15, 2020

Read: This is the Month the Senate Can and Should Act to Address Sexual Assault at VA

April 2020 is the 19th annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and on April 2nd, a VA doctor was charged with assaulting an Army veteran at a West Virginia VA facility in February 2019. As a veteran that does not use VA healthcare because of all too frequent stories like this, just reading the headline was devastating. In the time that I have been sitting at home during the quarantine, I have given a lot of thought to enrolling at VA and finally having some health concerns treated that I know were a result of my service in the Navy. Seeing this news made me question that option once again.

I am a veteran that has decided to seek health care outside VA. I have a great job with amazing benefits, and I know that I have a lot of choices when it comes to my healthcare. As a sexual assault survivor, this means the world to me. Ending sexual harassment and military sexual trauma (MST) are issues of high importance, both to IAVA and to me personally.

I served in the U.S. Navy from 2010-2014 as an Aviation Electronics Technician. It was one of the most fulfilling jobs that I have ever had, and I miss it every day. I joined the Navy because I wanted to see the world and hoped to one day become a pilot. At least that is what I told everyone.

I am not a survivor of MST, but I am a survivor of sexual assault. I joined the military to escape from my hometown and the constant reminder of what I had been through. I relived it every day when I went to college and was forced to be around my assailant because he was involved with my roommate. I relived it every day because I grew up in a small town, and every single piece of that town reminded me of a day that I had spent with him. I relived it every day because it happened in my house, in my bedroom, in my bed. While I cannot fully comprehend the pain that these strong, resilient men and women have as a result of MST, I do know what it is like to never be able to escape from those that have taken something from you, forced to replay the horrific memories because of your surroundings. And I know the pain of not wanting to exist anymore because of the helplessness and fear you feel. This is the reason I joined the military, and this is also the reason I have never enrolled at VA.

While DoD and VA have taken many steps to help survivors of MST and have put out messaging about ending harassment, sexual assault and harassment still remains an issue in the military and at VA. In the last four months of 2019, we were told that federal authorities were investigating allegations of multiple sexual assaults against VA patients at a West Virginia VA hospital. A San Diego area physician working with VA pled guilty to assaulting and exploiting five female patients referred to him by department health officials. And lastly, a House Veterans Affairs Committee staffer was harassed and assaulted by a patient at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center. Situations like these, and the most recent case, prevent veterans from seeking care at VA, a benefit they have earned by serving in the military.

We have a culture problem within our military, and it has spilled over into VA. Passing the Deborah Sampson Act (H.R. 3224/S. 514) would be a big step for survivors of MST and would take necessary extra steps to end harassment at VA. Sexual assault has been shown to be increasing within the military, and we are calling out for the culture change now. I want to feel safe going to the VA. I want to use the VA health system without fear. 81% of IAVA members rate VA healthcare as average to above-average, and I have a right to this benefit by having served in the United States Navy. Survivors deserve better. We have earned better.

The House has passed the Deborah Sampson Act. The Senate should vote to send it to the president when they return later this month. Click HERE to register your support with Congress.

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