This past January, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Department of Defense has removed the ban against women serving in combat. While it remains to be seen how this new policy will be implemented, this news story made me think about several female military veteran Social Security disability clients of mine who are alleging disability not for combat injuries but for PTSD arising from physical and sexual harassment that occurred while they were serving in the military.
I am glad to see that this issue – sexual harassment of female soldiers – is being reported. The New York Times ran a story on February 27, 2013 entitled Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home and the examples set out in this story reflect the experiences of my clients. One of the soldiers profiled in the NYT story describes a brutal rape on a U.S. Military base on South Korea. The emotional scarring arising from this incident has left the victimized soldier suffering from PTSD, living out of her car and beset by homelessness.
The story of the soldier in the NYT mirrors the case of a client I represented at a hearing just a few months ago. My client was stationed stateside when a male officer began to make inappropriate verbal advances towards her. Eventually this verbal abuse led to physical abuse and my client was raped numerous times by this officer over a year long period. The offending officer advised my client that no one would believe her and that he would kill her if she reported the rapes. My client did eventually file a report but the Army took no action on her complaint and eventually promoted and transferred her tormenter.
After leaving the Army my client did work in a job involving creative work where she could minimize contact with others but eventually she fell into a deep depression from which she has not recovered. She is currently homeless, living with friends when she can and in her car at other times. Because of financial concerns her only access to treatment is at the Veterans Administration hospital, but my client has received very little treatment of value there. First, the VA facility brings back memories of a military environment and thus exacerbates her stress level. Second, the VA psychologists seem reluctant to document my client’s story and their therapy consists of prescribing psychotropic medications.
My client was turned down for disability at her hearing. The decision reads in part:
The claimant has a significant history of treatment for major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The claimant presented fora State agency consultative psychological examination by Dr. —- and reported longstanding depression, “but I haven’t had any treatment because they usually try to push medication.” She reported taking psychotropic medications for a short time some years ago, but discontinued and never resumed….The longitudinal record shows the claimant reported doing well with decreased symptoms when taking medications as prescribed. However, the record also shows her symptoms returned including auditory hallucinations, increased depression and anxiety, suicidal idation, paranoia and sleep problems in the setting of non-compliance with psychotrophic medications.
In other words, my client was disapproved because she refused to consume a copious volume of pills that left her basically non-functional from an organization that she does not trust as having her best interest at heart.
My sense is that this judge viewed PTSD through the lens of combat stress only and was not sensitive to the unique psychological vulnerability of female soldiers who regularly deal with sexual harassment. It will be interesting to see if adding combat stress to the existing challanges faced by female soldiers will be reflected in PTSD diagnoses.