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After controversial event on sexual assault support, VA postpones future telephone town halls

By Leo Shane III

Veterans Affairs officials have agreed to delay upcoming telephone town halls with veterans following criticism from sexual assault victims and their advocates that one recent event traumatized listeners because of the department’s callous approach to the issue.

The event, held last Thursday, involved cold calls to thousands of veterans inviting them into a live group discussion about military sexual assault and VA benefits. It was part of a series of outreach efforts by the Veterans Benefits Administration in recent months.

Numerous veterans said they were confused about the purpose of the event until they were already listening to others recount past assault and harassment, triggering thoughts of their own past traumas.

VA officials on Friday offered an apology to “anyone who this event may have upset” but called it largely a success, saying they received about 1,500 questions from veterans looking for additional benefits and program information.

But House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., blasted the decision not to better prepare listeners for the event.

“VA must be held to the highest standard when it comes to addressing sexual harassment and assault across the department, and at all costs avoid re-victimizing and re-exposing veteran survivors of sexual trauma to incredibly painful stories of military sexual assault,” he said in a statement.

“While the intentions behind the call may have been laudable, the event itself was poorly executed.”

Takano said that VA Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence pledged to him late last week that all future telephone town halls would be delayed while officials “reevaluate the method it uses to communicate with veterans and ensure a safe and welcoming environment.”

Department officials had another event on suicide prevention and support services planned for Dec. 22. VA officials confirmed that the event has been postponed for now, and plans to post audio from last week’s event online (as they have for the past town halls) have also been delayed while officials conduct their review.

In February, several veterans advocates testified before Takano’s committee about concerns with how VA handles sexual assault claims, including a practice of calling veterans without advance warning to review their cases and recount their trauma.

Samantha Kubek, coordinating attorney of the LegalHealth Veterans Initiative at the New York Legal Assistance Group and one of the experts at that hearing, said the latest incident shows deep-seated problems with VA’s approach to the issue.

“Survivors are individuals who have been violated in the most intimate of ways and have been stripped of their power,” she said. “To cold call survivors and ask for a recounting is to take away that power, and to then state then that ‘well, some got something out of it’ is to ignore each survivors’ individuality.

“Anytime one survivor is made worse off by the actions of the Department, they should consider that a moral failure.”

Along with sexual assault survivors, several veterans who have no connection to the issue told Military Times they were invited into the call without warning, and confused to be listening to veterans emotionally detailing their past issues to a wide, unknown audience.

VA officials said about 87,000 veterans participated in the event.

The controversial town hall comes on the heels of growing criticism over the VA leadership’s handling of a sexual assault case over the last year.

In recent days, 24 members of Congress — all Democrats — and 21 veterans groups (including the so-called “big six” traditional veterans service organizations) have called for VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and other senior officials to resign from their department jobs over the scandal, saying that they have lost faith in their ability to lead the needed reforms to benefit women veterans.

The criticism stems from a VA inspector general report released Dec. 10 which criticized Wilkie for an “unprofessional” response to a September 2019 sexual assault report filed by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staffer Andrea Goldstein.

Wilkie promised an independent investigation into the incident, but investigators said he instead spearheaded an internal campaign to discredit Goldstein, believing her allegations to be a political stunt.

The inspector general’s report did not find criminal wrongdoing by senior VA officials, but said the behind-the-scenes conduct undermined department efforts to make VA a welcoming place for sexual misconduct survivors.

Wilkie has dismissed the IG’s findings as a political attack. He has not offered any public comment on the town hall complaints.

Originally published in MilitaryTimes on December 22, 2020.

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