The Department of Veterans Affairs has revealed that more than 85,000 veterans last year were treated for injuries or illness stemming from sexual abuse in the military, highlighting a crisis that President Barack Obama has called "shameful and disgraceful."
"We will not stop until we've seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated," Obama told Pentagon officials last week at the White House. "Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be."
The Associated Press reported on Monday that more than 85,000 veterans had been affected in 2012, based on information released by VA. Of those cases, most of the victims were women, but nearly 40 percent were men. Sexual abuse has been defined by VA as "any sexual activity where you are involved against your will," which can come in various forms – some have reported to have been raped, while others said they were groped or subjected to verbal abuse or other forms of sexual harassment.
Officials have said that they have been working on creating a system so that seeking treatment is as easy as possible for victims.
"It really is the case that a veteran can simply walk through the door, say they've had this experience, and we will get them hooked up with care. There's no documentation required. They don't need to have reported it at the time," explained Dr. Margret Bell, a member of the VA's military sexual trauma team. "The emphasis is really on helping people get the treatment that they need."
For the 4,000 or so last year that sought disability benefits, however, the process is longer and more difficult, which has promoted a number of veterans groups and lawmakers to push for bills that would make it easier for victims to receive disability payments.
"Right now, the burden of proof is stacked against sexual trauma survivors," said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. "Ninety percent of 26,000 cases last year weren't even reported. So where is that evidence supposed to come from?"
Others have also suggested that the 85,000 figure may be lower than the reality of the situation, as many sexual crimes in the military go unreported for a variety of reasons.
"We do a lot more awareness," said Edna MacDonald, head of the department regional office in Nashville. "As we educate everyone on the potential benefits and that it's okay to come forward, I think you see an increase in reporting."
Besides the high rate of sexual abuse, the U.S. Army has also reported of a rising rate of suicides. Findings released by the Pentagon in June 2012 revealed that active-duty suicides had even surpassed combat-related deaths over the past year.
A retired U.S. Army Reserves chaplain previously told The Christian Post that the high rate of suicide among soldiers could be linked to broken relationships back home, as well as a poor spiritual foundation, as newer generations of army personnel are less religious than previous ones.