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The Persistent Problem of Sexual Harassment and Assault within the Military

Sexual harassment and assault against female members of the military remains a persistent problem that has rightfully received heightened attention in the last few years in the hope that it can be eradicated from all branches of our armed forces. Gender-based harassment and assault are prevalent in the world of veterans affairs as well, and the area of veterans’ health care in particular has come under scrutiny.

fullsizeoutput_44-300x169According to a national Health Services Research and Development survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 25% of women patients at VA health care facilities have experienced sexual or other harassment from other veterans. The VA defines patient harassment as “unwelcome physical, non-verbal or verbal behavior that interferes with a veteran’s access to and sustained engagement with VA health care. Harassment creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive health care environment.” The VA also provides examples of harassing conduct. For instance, the VA recognizes the failure to acknowledge women as veterans as gender harassment, and it occurs when someone asks a woman veteran if she is accompanying her husband to an appointment or questions her about the authenticity of clothing identifying a branch or era of service. On Vantage Point, the official blog of the VA, it also lists catcalls, whistles, stares, leering or ogling, telling women to smile, telling women they are too pretty to be veterans and following or cornering someone as examples of gender-based harassment. By all appearances, the VA is working to identify, educate veterans about, and eradicate this type of sexual harassment.

However, some question the VA’s dedication to gender equality and safety in its health care facilities after Andrea Goldstein, senior policy advisor on female veterans to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, alleged she had been sexually assaulted at a government-run veterans’ hospital. Goldstein, who has chosen to make her identity known, claimed in September 2019 that while she was waiting in line to buy food in the main lobby of the VA hospital in Washington, D.C., a contractor rubbed his body against hers and made suggestive comments of a sexual nature. Since that time, the VA and specifically its Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the Trump administration Robert Wilkie’s handling of her claim have come under scrutiny. The ensuing investigations have raised serious questions about how the VA handles complaints of sexual harassment, assault and retaliation and point to larger societal problems of victim-blaming and refusing to address systemic problems of gender equality and respect for female veterans.

VA Inspector General Michael Missal opened an investigation into Wilkie after he openly questioned Goldstein’s credibility claiming that she was politically motivated. Missal’s investigation found evidence of several disturbing choices made by Wilkie and his senior staff, but not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges against him. Missal found that rather than focusing on the contractor who assaulted Goldstein, who did not have credentials to enter the hospital and had been the subject of a previous sexual harassment complaint from a VA employee, Wilkie and his team focused their efforts on discrediting Goldstein and hindering the investigation into her claims. Wilkie, along with acting deputy secretary Pamela Powers, and two top press officials, James Hutton and Curt Cashour, refused to cooperate with requests for follow-up interviews. They also reportedly spread skepticism about the validity of her claims by planting the idea among relevant parties that Goldstein had a history of making complaints of sexual harassment, with the implication being that she could not be believed. Press official Cashour reportedly encouraged a journalist to look into whether Goldstein had filed similar complaints in the past. Reportedly, the police also ran a background check on Goldstein two days before running any checks on the man who allegedly assaulted her. Missal’s report said the VA’s response to Goldstein’s complaint was essentially to question her credibility and fail to fully explore the facts. Wilkie asserted that his conversations about Goldstein’s claim were confidential and should not have been the subject of an investigation.

Women are the fastest-growing veteran population, and the VA is struggling to meet their health needs and provide them with safe, unhindered access to health care. Further, government employees who complain of gender-based harassment or sexual assault are often silenced by victim-blaming, red tape, and the invocation of departmental confidentiality. The refusal of the VA to hold Goldstein’s perpetrator accountable and instead to problematize the victim, led by its most senior official, is a demonstration of the abuse of power that occurs when women are seen as problems to be dealt with and victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them. The VA should be a safe place that engenders respect for all veterans and demands that they be treated equally and lawfully.

Federal and state laws protect woman from being subjected to sexual harassment and assault and there are no exceptions to the military.  Action is clearly needed to address the systemic problem of sexual harassment and assault that continues to plague our country’s armed forces.  If you are a victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, it is imperative you contact an experience sexual harassment lawyer for advice and counsel for your particular situation.

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