Senators support expanding access to civilian counselors outside of VA for military sexual assault victims

Retired Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah Arbogast and former Private First Class Jessica Kenyon told lawmakers that the VA’s mental health services for military sexual assault survivors were so lacking that they were compelled to seek care with civilian counselors.

“The VA health care system is overloaded and fails to keep up with the sheer growing number of MST [military sexual trauma] victims,” said Arbogast, who was drugged and raped by his former Marine supervisor. Arbogast was paralyzed by his suicide attempt.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel last month, Arbogast recounted his frustration in seeking mental health treatments at the VA.

The VA counselor to whom he was assigned was not trained in military sexual trauma. Arbogast said the lack of training was evident when he brought up his military sexual assault because the response by VA psychologists was “Oh!”.

“That’s a stigma that I feel personally when you get a reply of ‘Oh!’ when you say that you’re sexually assaulted,” said Arbogast. “At that point, you kind of feel like ‘I’m just this dirty thing.'”

Arbogast said he also explored different treatment facilities and programs for military sexual trauma but found that they were mostly “women-oriented.” When Arbogast asked what services he could receive, he was told by the VA as recently as last year that “We don’t have a men’s group yet. We’re still in the process of putting that together.”

Arbogast said he had to seek care outside of the VA, which is covered under Tricare and Medicare for him.

For Kenyon, she has to pay out of pocket for any counseling outside the VA because she did not qualify for Tricare because she did not retire from the military. And although her rape dated back to 2006, she is still waiting to receive her disability rating.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Angus King (I-Maine) said they would support expanding access to civilian counselors for victims of military sexual trauma.

“I hope we can find a way to broaden the treatment options available,” said Graham. “I think there are a lot of things outside the VA, outside DOD that may be beneficial.”

King pointed to a VA pilot program in northern Maine that allowed veterans to access health care services with local civilian providers rather than having to drive four hours to a VA hospital.

Kenyon said more choices outside of VA would benefit victims of military sexual trauma.

“I believe there are a lot of benefits especially in the ability to test-drive basically other counselors and caregivers whom you feel comfortable as well as being able to better specialize in what is actually affecting you,” said Kenyon. “I think there’s a lot more benefit to getting more specialized treatment.”

Dr. Susan McCutcheon, the National Mental Health Director for the VA, informed lawmakers at the hearing that “Non-VA care is always an option.”

Kenyon and Arbogast reacted with surprise to McCutcheon’s statement, which Graham pointed out.

“Both witnesses seem to be very much unaware that…they had access to health care outside of the traditional VA system,” said Graham.

When pressed on how survivors can receive care outside the VA, McCutcheon explained that they must go through the MST coordinator at their VA hospital, who would determine whether there is need to apply for care outside the VA.

“We can always connect you with the MST coordinator and that person can explore options for you if for some reason there is an access issue for you,” said McCutcheon. “We encourage veterans to contact the MST coordinator at the facility and that person is in the perfect position to help them as far as coordinating care within the facility or applying for non-veteran care.”


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