Senator wants fair treatment for service members who seek sexual assault counseling
(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester is pushing to reevaluate the national security clearance process to protect service members who sought counseling for sexual trauma.
To acquire a security clearance, applicants must list whether they have received mental health counseling and if so allow an investigator access to their health records. But Tester says service members should not have to disclose professional counseling they seek to cope with sexual trauma.
Studies show that more than 20 percent of servicewomen are sexually assaulted while serving in the military.
Tester says the current screening policy discourages qualified service members from applying for important national security positions and discourages them from getting the counseling they need.
“Seeking care does not constitute a valid security concern, and it is not something that should be discouraged by the very nation they fought to defend,” Tester wrote.
As of 2008, national security clearance applicants no longer have to list counseling for combat trauma on the security questionnaire, known as the SF 86. The change was made to help reduce the stigma that often prevents service members from seeking care for combat stress. Tester wants the same, fair treatment for individuals who seek help for sexual trauma.
“The current policy is a violation of privacy and being a victim of sexual assault should not preclude a service member from gaining or maintaining a security clearance,” Tester added. “We can do better.”
Tester first looked into the issue after a veteran contacted him last year about it. He also heard about the lifelong effects of combat and sexual trauma at a women veterans’ roundtable earlier this month in Billings.
There were as many as 19,000 instances of sexual assault in the military in 2010. While most assaults occur against women, men are affected as well.
Tester announced in December that the VA would improve the accuracy and consistency of their disability claims process related to Military Sexual Trauma. The VA’s action comes after Tester and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told the VA further action was needed to improve the process.
Tester’s letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is available below and online HERE.
February 23, 2012
The Honorable James R. Clapper, Jr. The Honorable Leon Panetta
National Intelligence Department of Defense
Office of the Director of National Intelligence 1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20511 Washington, DC 20301-1000
Dear Director Clapper and Secretary Panetta:
Recently, Secretary Panetta expressed concern that as many as 19,000 instances of sexual assault occurred in the United States military last year. Some studies have estimated that at least 20 percent of servicewomen and one percent of servicemen have been sexually assaulted while serving our country. Undoubtedly, we must protect the survivors of these terrible crimes and do everything in our power to prevent such assaults from happening in the first place. And we must be vigilant in ensuring our policies or practices do not unnecessarily further traumatize these men and women.
As you know, the Standard Form 86 (SF 86), Questionnaire for National Security Positions, is currently the document used by military personnel and government employees to apply for a Security Clearance. Question 21 of that form asks whether applicants have consulted with a mental health professional or other health care provider about a mental health related condition. If question 21 is answered in the affirmative, the applicant is directed to sign an authorization for release of medical information — allowing an investigator to get complete access to the individual’s file and to ask the survivor or relevant health care provider whatever questions he or she deems appropriate.
In 2008, combat trauma was excluded from such disclosure on question 21 of SF 86 to help remove the stigma of service members seeking mental health counseling. Today, I strongly urge you to take steps to also exempt sexual assault-related mental health counseling because being a victim of sexual assault should not preclude a service member from gaining or maintaining a security clearance. The current policy is a violation of privacy and creates a disincentive for service members to seek the mental health counseling they need. We can do better.
I hope you take this request under consideration, and I look forward to finding resolution of this matter. It would be a modest yet meaningful step for survivors of sexual assault. At every opportunity, these survivors should be encouraged to seek the care and assistance they need. Seeking this care does not constitute a valid security concern, and it is not something that should be discouraged by the very nation they fought to defend.