Abused Soldier Sues Pentagon for Benefits

     WASHINGTON (CN) — A woman who was sexually assaulted as a teenage soldier and then barred from serving in Iraq due to depression has sued the Department of Defense for denying her disability benefits.
     Sherron Chatman, a former Army sergeant, served on active duty from 1981, when she was 17, until 1984, and again in Iraq from 2003 until 2004, when she was medically separated with an honorable discharge due to post-traumatic stress disorder, she says in the May 11 lawsuit in Federal Court.
     “During her first six months of service, plaintiff was sexually assaulted twice,” the complaint states. “The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that the assaults occurred, concluding that the preponderance of the evidence — including medical records, a letter from plaintiff’s sister, and prior testimony before the VA’s Board of Veterans Appeals —corroborated plaintiff’s allegations. The VA also found that the assaults caused plaintiff’s PTSD and her PTSD was caused or aggravated by her military service.”
     While in the Army Reserve from 1984 to 1992, Chatman says, she “struggled to hold any steady employment.”
     She entered a drug and alcohol rehab program at a VA facility in 1999. “In 2000, plaintiff entered the National Women’s Trauma Recovery Program in Palo Alto, Calif. and received in-patient counseling for PTSD. Beginning in June 2002, plaintiff began to receive treatment for PTSD at the VA facility in Bay Pines, Fla., for trauma victims and has continued to receive treatment for PTSD through VA since that time,” she says in the complaint.
     As she prepared to head to Iraq in 2003, she “was deemed non-deployable due to her mental health condition and her commander recommended her for a medical evaluation board,” according to the complaint.
     The physical evaluation board found that Chatman’s “sole medically unfitting condition” existed prior to service, and recommended that she be separated from the Army without disability retirement benefits, the complaint states.
     After she appealed and asked for a congressional inquiry through her senator, Veterans Affairs ruled that Chatman’s disorder was directly linked to the 1981 sexual assaults, she says.
     Upon reconsideration, the VA in 2008 “granted service connection for plaintiff’s PTSD and depression and assigned a disability rating of 70 percent,” with an effective date for benefits of Aug. 16, 1999, the day Chatman initially filed a claim for benefits, the complaint states.
     Chatman then asked the Department of Defense to review the prior-to-service determination, submitting an application to the agency’s Physical Disability Board of Review.
     “Just one day later, on Feb. 19, 2015, Ray Diaz, chief of the PDBR intake analysis, intake operations unit, sent plaintiff a letter concluding that she was not ‘deemed a covered individual,'” based on the prior-to-service determination, Chatman says.
     Since the Defense Department has no mechanism to review such a determination, Chatman’s attorneys, wrote to the president of the PDBR, who said she was ineligible because her condition existed prior to service.
     Chatman calls that ruling “contrary to the legislative history and intent of the PDBR,” which was established by the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008.
     Chatman wants her benefits restored and declaratory judgment that the Pentagon violated the Administrative Procedures Act.
     She is represented by Daniel Meron with Latham & Watkins.
     The Justice Department did not return an emailed request for comment.

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