VA leader must demonstrate commitment to ending harassment

VA leader must demonstrate commitment to ending harassment
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Last week, news outlets reported Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieVA could lead way for nation on lower drug pricing Whistleblower claims leaders of VA sought damaging information on woman alleging sexual assault Overnight Defense: US deploys low-yield nukes on submarines | Watchdog warns Iraq withdrawal 'likely' means ISIS resurgence | What to watch in Trump's State of the Union MORE sent a letter to Rep. Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoCalifornia lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Overnight Defense: VA deputy secretary fired | Impeachment trial winds down with closing arguments | Pentagon watchdog to probe use of cancer-linked chemical Committee on Veterans Affairs sends important message during tense Senate time MORE (D. Calif.), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, with an update on the department’s response to staffer Andrea Goldstein’s allegation of being sexually assaulted at the D.C. VA Medical Center. Wilkie wrote that the matter has been closed with no charges filed. The letter stated that “VA is a safe place for all Veterans to enter and receive care and services” and further called Ms. Goldstein’s claims “unsubstantiated.”

This letter is a breathtakingly inappropriate response to a well-documented concern within the VA medical system. Secretary Wilkie should apologize to Ms. Goldstein — and all the women veterans whose similar concerns he has undermined by extension — and immediately commit to redoubling senior leader support for the End Harassment campaign.

VA’s own research shows that women veterans do not find the VA to be a safe place to enter to receive care and services. To the contrary, one in four women veterans reported having experienced sexual harassment, typically by their fellow patients. These women were “less likely to report feeling welcome at VA, and more likely to report feeling unsafe and delaying/missing care.” Previous VA research has also shown that women veterans who have previous experiences of sexual trauma feel even less safe at VA facilities, which represents a significant barrier to care for individuals with a high burden of health care challenges in particular need of VA’s subject matter expertise in treating trauma.

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Changing the culture that has allowed this behavior to flourish requires strong leadership. Research has shown that employees take sexual harassment seriously when leaders do. By publicly sending a dismissive, belittling letter about the negative experience of a woman veteran patient, Secretary Wilkie has sent a strong message to VA staff, including VA police, as well as women veteran patients and potential perpetrators, that he does not take this problem seriously. It has been made excruciatingly clear to other women veterans that should we report sexual harassment or assault in a VA facility, not only will there be no consequences to the bad actor, but that we ourselves may face public humiliation for coming forward.

Because make no mistake: calling the claims “unsubstantiated” is a subtle way to impugn a reputation.

A reported sexual assault may be determined to be “unfounded” or “unsubstantiated” for any number of reasons, such as a lack of physical evidence. That does not mean it was a false report or that the incident did not occur. However, news coverage sometimes mistakenly conflates concepts like false and unproven, which perpetuates dangerous myths that false accusations are common. Not only does this line come across as victim-blaming and gaslighting, but it’s also untrue in this specific case: VA’s Inspector General wrote, “Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the Department that the allegations were unsubstantiated.”

To be sure, I was not present and do not know precisely what happened to Ms. Goldstein. However, what is not disputed by anyone at VA is that when she immediately reported the experience to multiple VA employees, they did not call VA police.

This clearly demonstrates that VA staff did not understand their obligation to take complaints seriously and respond appropriately. Nascent efforts to train personnel on effective response have been inadequate, and Wilkie’s letter demonstrates that senior leaders continue to not take the issue seriously.

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I am a woman veteran who previously worked at VA, uses VA for health care, and has publicly written about my generally positive experiences with VA health care.

As a patient and advocate, I strongly believe it is vital for women veterans to feel safe getting care at VA — and that requires believing appropriate action will be taken if we experience sexual harassment or assault.

In this case, a woman veteran with a strong sense of personal agency and the platform to raise concerns about her experience had her personal reputation publicly attacked by the VA Secretary. That is precisely the wrong response. Treating women veterans’ concerns as part of an ongoing political dispute rather than taking them seriously will drive women away from an exceptional system of care.

Secretary Wilkie should apologize to Ms. Goldstein for this serious misstep and use his position to push for profound culture change to improve the environment of care and the patient experience for women veterans within VA.

Kayla Williams is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served two years as Director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs, serving as primary advisor to the Secretary on policies, programs and legislation affecting women veterans. Prior to that, she worked at the RAND Corporation, where she did research related to veteran health needs and benefits, international security and intelligence policy. She is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir of her deployment to Iraq.