April 18, 2013

For Mainer, pain became power, and then change

Ruth Moore is an instrumental advocate for sexual assault victims in the U.S. military.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – It took Ruth Moore a quarter-century to be able to speak openly about how she was sexually assaulted as an 18-year-old Navy enlistee.

click image to enlarge

Milbridge resident Ruth Moore pauses while discussing a bill bearing her name that aims to relax the rules for military sexual assault survivors seeking disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill's two primary sponsors – U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana – as well as Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women's Action Network, at left, also spoke at the press conference on Wednesday announcing the bills.

Kevin Miller / Staff Writer

And even now – after talking to members of Congress, military officials and countless veterans with similar stories – the experience is painful for the woman from Milbridge who occasionally wants to "run away and hide with my goats" on her farm in Down East Maine.

So on Wednesday, as she accepted a Voice for Change Award on Capitol Hill, Moore said she did so on behalf of all the others like her.

"We carried the battle cry across this nation," Moore told several hundred people at a Service Women's Action Network Truth and Justice Summit. "I will accept this award with the knowledge that we all accept this award together. Because when I look at the people here, I see the bravery, courage, pain, anger and conviction that I carry and live with every day."

Wednesday's summit came one day after a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee held a hearing on the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, which aims to make it easier for veterans and service members to qualify for disability benefits for sexual assault. The bill would establish relaxed evidentiary standards similar to those for post-traumatic stress disorder claims due to combat.

"What we have is an inequity in the system, and those who were raped or sexually assaulted in the military have a much harder path to receiving benefits, even though these injuries are service-connected and the same standard should apply," Rep. Chellie Pingree, the Maine Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, told the subcommittee.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald.

A similar bill died in Congress last year, but advocates for survivors of "military sexual trauma" say they believe momentum has shifted in their favor because of veterans' willingness to tell their stories to members of Congress and in accounts such as the documentary "The Invisible War."

"We are making some significant progress," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was also recognized for her work on the issue of military sexual assault.

According to statistics compiled by the Service Women Action Network from Freedom of Information requests, less than one-third of benefits claims for post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual assault were approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs, compared with more than 53 percent for PTSD claims overall.

The Defense Department's own estimates are that as many as one in four women in the military will be sexually abused or assaulted. Yet groups estimate that nearly 90 percent of sexual assaults in the military are never reported, largely because of concerns about retaliation or distrust in the military's judicial process.

Moore didn't receive her 70 percent disability determination until 23 years after a superior officer raped her twice – the second time in retaliation for reporting the first rape – while she was stationed in the Azores with the Navy.

She struggled for decades with depression, anxiety disorders and suicidal thoughts before getting help through a comprehensive treatment program at a veterans hospital.

After decades of silence, Moore went public with her story last year in the Maine media, then testified before the same congressional subcommittee. Asked about that rapid transition and her role as the public name and face of the issue, Moore said she feels "like I have 400 pounds off of my shoulders," and power from the support she has received from other veterans.

Moore teared up Wednesday as she held a compilation of the 400 letters she has received from across the country since she shared her own experiences.

"I cried in pain with their stories," said Moore, who got a standing ovation after her remarks.

On Thursday, attendees of the Service Women Action Network conference plan to go to the offices of House and Senate members to lobby for the Ruth Moore Act and reforms in the military's judicial handling of sexual assault cases.

Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and company commander who co-founded the network, called Moore "a tireless advocate who has transformed adversity into action in helping others."

"Her testimony last summer was absolutely pivotal in getting this legislation that we have worked on for quite some time to move forward," Bhagwati said. "We needed a face to the issue. There are countless veterans ... but Ruth's story was so powerful, just the sheer length of time she had to struggle with the VA. In addition, she is just a phenomenal spokesperson and a phenomenal advocate."

An earlier version of this article was changed to correct the name of the Service Women's Action Network's Truth and Justice Summit.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

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