In September, I was sexually harassed and assaulted at the Washington D.C. VA hospital. It was far from the first time I had been to the facility, where I receive excellent care in the women’s clinic.
I reported the incident to three VA employees who did nothing. The fourth individual I notified, my doctor, finally called the VA police. VA’s Office of the Inspector General and the US Attorney’s Office opened an investigation.
Two weeks ago, I learned that the case had been closed because there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt. Most significantly, a camera that might have captured the incident was not working. The next day the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, wrote a letter to my boss, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Congressman Mark Takano, in which he wrote, “We believe that VA is a safe place for all Veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our Veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”
Upon reading the letter, and this phrase, I hid in a stairwell in the Longworth House Office Building and began to shake with rage and horror.
He used coded language, but the words still stung. The Secretary of the second largest federal agency knew how his words would resonate. He was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar. He was implying that I was a liar.
Secretary Wilkie’s continued refusal to take ownership of the hostility and sexual violence at VA further perpetuated this hostile culture by both revictimizing a veteran in public and denying the culture of harassment and assault whose existence is well documented.
Equally distressing is that Secretary Wilkie’s repeated public refusal to acknowledge that VA is not a safe place for women —both veterans and employees alike—willfully ignores plenty of VA’s own research on the topic. In early 2019, VA released research that found one in four women veterans experience sexual and gender harassment at VA facilities, often by other veterans. This is in addition’s to VA’s findings that at least one in four female and one in a hundred male veterans report having experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.
I receive all of my healthcare from VA, including treatment for conditions related to experiencing military sexual trauma while serving. The Secretary of that same agency publicly retaliated against me for reporting my own assault, just as a military commander once did when I reported sexual harassment while I was on active duty.
As a congressional staffer, my role is to support members of Congress in achieving their policy goals on behalf of the American people. We fade into the background and quietly draft legislation and orchestrate hearings. While we do have a party affiliation, we avoid the political battles that the members are elected to engage in. Public barbs between political appointees and members of Congress are expected. Punching down to a staffer is unheard of.
But the damage is already done. This public retaliation and gaslighting was incredibly triggering—not only for me, but for the millions of survivors and witnesses to sexual violence in the military and at VA who were looking on.
For many veterans, experiencing this form of traumatic invalidation from a powerful figure would have triggered a mental health crisis. Although I’m frustrated and exhausted, I will be fine. However, I could not help but think about past waypoints in my own journey with PTSD and depression where something like this incident might have made me consider hurting myself. VA’s world class researchers at the National Center for PTSD have found that triggers such as this would cause an attempted or completed suicide for many veterans. Knowing this, friends showed up at my house to check in on me the night after the letter was made public.
When the story of my assault first broke in September, and in the last week, I received a deluge of messages on social media and email from veterans and VA employees recounting their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault at VA. A number of these stories included either inaction or retaliation by those with the authority to act. For many veterans, seeing a white woman with powerful allies be denied safety, respect, and justice, raises the question of how women with less power, less experience and fewer means of recourse are treated.
The Secretary cannot claim that VA is a safe place when his public actions perpetuate a culture of violence. Not only did a cabinet official attack a victim publicly, he sent a resounding message to women veterans and survivors already fighting for basic shreds of dignity.
Despite the fact that women have served in and alongside the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, servicewomen and women veterans still fight for equity every single day. Sexual assault against women in the military is on the rise but the perpetrators largely go unpunished. Women fought for decades for the chance to serve in every military occupational specialty— roles many women had already served in for decades without recognition. These women continue to have their presence in the military questioned while serving and their veteran status questioned once they leave. While serving on active duty from 2009-2016, I saw this happen. It’s exhausting, humiliating, and demoralizing. In the 116th Congress, Congresswoman Julia Brownley launched the Women Veterans Task Force, for which I am the Senior Policy Advisor, precisely with the aims of achieving equity for women veterans and servicewomen who will become veterans.
VA healthcare saves lives. My VA healthcare providers in Boston, Albany, and Washington have saved mine. For many women veterans, receiving low or no-cost, high-quality care that acknowledges our unique and complex experiences and needs is worth many of the frustrations and indignities that come with entering a VA facility while female. The Secretary’s latest actions will deter women from seeking that care.
Andrea N. Goldstein is a United States Navy veteran. She was a Pat Tillman Scholar at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Andrea currently serves as the Senior Policy Advisor for the Women Veterans Task Force with the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.