July 15, 2012

Bill Nemitz: A Mainer testifies for all with invisible wounds

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Ruth Moore is shown outside her home in Milbridge. This week, she will tell the House Committee on Veterans Affairs what happened on a naval base in the Azores 25 years ago.

Courtesy photo

Add to that the glaring symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder -- the panic attacks both day and night, the migraine headaches, the insomnia -- and it's little wonder that by 1997, Ruth's marriage had dissolved and she found herself living out of her van.

That's when Ruth met Butch while working for a local blueberry farm. They married in 2000 and without him, Ruth said, "I probably wouldn't be alive."

Despite the waiver she signed, Ruth had tried early on to apply for disability benefits through the Veterans Benefits Administration, but was denied. She tried again in 2003 and was denied again.

Then she sought help from Disabled American Veterans -- an independent organization that for almost a century has helped veterans obtain the benefits to which they're entitled.

Thanks in large part to the DAV, Ruth managed to obtain a 30-percent disability rating -- for "depression" -- from the Veterans Benefits Administration. But she was again denied benefits for PTSD because, she was told, "I did not submit enough evidence to prove that I was raped."

Ruth tried over and over to work -- she figures she held 30 jobs over 23 years. But the myriad of PTSD triggers inevitably left her unable to continue.

She's instinctively terrified of male supervisors. She often panics in crowded places. She suffers flashbacks of the rapes "all the time."

She once went to work for a dentist who liked to "pick up his female employees from behind and carry them around the office." They thought it was fun. Ruth, who soon quit, considered it hell on earth.

Even the smell of her attacker's brand of aftershave to this day immediately causes "this sharp, acrid taste in my mouth," Ruth said.

"I wish I could work. I truly do," she insisted. "I hate being an imposition on society -- and that's what people consider me, an imposition on society."

In 2008, Ruth and her family moved to Vermont for what they hoped would be a fresh start. There, at a Veterans Health Administration center in White River Junction, Ruth finally found a military sexual trauma unit that performed a top-to-bottom review of her records.

They found not only that doctors' notes from Bethesda were mysteriously missing from her file, but also that someone along the way had mistakenly added "traumatic brain injury" to Ruth's already false diagnosis.

Finally, in January 2010, Ruth got a letter from the Veterans Benefits Administration acknowledging that yes, she had been sexually assaulted, and yes, she was entitled to a 70 percent disability rating along with a finding that she was unemployable.

Translation: More than two decades after she was raped and declared mentally ill, Ruth finally received some semblance of compensatory justice.

"That was the first time I ever had anything in writing that said it happened to me," Ruth said, her voice breaking.

The family moved back to Milbridge, where they now raise their own chickens, goats, turkeys, vegetables and try as best they can to get on with life.

But when Ruth heard last year that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree was drafting legislation requiring the Veterans Benefits Administration to lower the burden of proof for claims of military sexual trauma -- much like it already has for combat-related claims of PTSD -- she knew she had to help.

That led to last year's television interview, albeit from the shadows with a voice that bore no resemblance to hers. And that led to this week's hearing, where Ruth will step forward for all the world to see and, at long last, tell Congress about her 23-year nightmare.

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