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Military Sexual Trauma-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Service-connection: Characteristics of Claimants and Award Denial Across Gender, Race, and Compared to Combat Trauma

January 16, 2024

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Veterans Benefits Administration denied a higher percentage of service-connection disability benefits claims by people who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to military sexual trauma (MST) than for people who submitted PTSD combat-related claims, according to a new study by Yale researchers.

The findings, published in PLOS ONE, revealed PTSD MST-related claims had higher odds of being denied than combat claims (27.6 percent vs. 18.2 percent), and that when controlling for age, race, and gender, men veterans had 1.78 times higher odds of having PTSD MST-related claims denied compared to women veterans (36.6 percent vs. 25.4 percent).

MST-related claims were submitted primarily by White women Army veterans, according to the researchers.

The study also revealed Black veterans had 1.39 times higher odds of having PTSD MST-related claims denied compared to White veterans (32.4 percent vs. 25.3 percent).

“This is the first empirical study to identify racial and gender disparities in awarding of MST-related PTSD VA benefits, and as compared to combat-related claims,” said Aliya Webermann, PhD, clinical instructor in psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and the paper’s lead author.

“While the VA has substantially increased their grant rate for MST-related PTSD benefits, this study shows continued disparities in access to VA benefits and barriers to accessing VA benefits for veterans from underserved backgrounds and/or those who may underreport military sexual trauma,” Webermann said.

The researchers used data from veterans’ claims submitted between October 2017 and May 2022, including 102,409 combat-related claims and 31,803 MST-related claims.

Although MST-related claims were denied in greater numbers than combat-related claims, the study results did show that nearly three-fourths (72.4 percent) of MST claims were awarded in the five-year period, a marked increase from 2011 when only 35.6 percent of MST claims were awarded.

The findings are consistent with prior reports from governmental and non-profit organizations demonstrating lower rates of MST-related PTSD service-connection awarding for men compared to women, and for overall PTSD service-connection awarding for Black veterans compared to White veterans.

The researchers said future research should include interviews with veterans who file MST-related service-connection claims, inclusion of other identity variables associated with higher rates of MST and subsequent PTSD symptoms (e.g., sexual orientation and gender identity), and an empirical examination of factors within VA’s adjudication, evaluation, and rating of MST-related PTSD service-connection claims.

Anne Black, PhD, associate professor of medicine, was the study’s senior author. Other contributing authors from Yale were Marc Rosen, MD; Galina Portnoy, PhD; and Mayumi Gianoli, PhD. Co-author Tessa Runels, MPH, formerly worked at Yale and the VA.

The study was funded through salary support by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on January 16, 2024