VA leader says sexual harassment is not 'pervasive' at VA. These veterans disagree.

Abbie Bennett
August 07, 2020 - 2:40 am
Letter from a survivor, 2018.

Photo by Capt. Tanya Downsworth/92d Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: This story includes details of sexual harassment and assault. 

They call it "the Gauntlet." 

Department of Veterans Affairs patients described versions of it at medical facilities across the country -- a group of men seemingly omnipresent and unavoidable at the entrance of hospitals and clinics that patients and staff must pass through to reach their appointments. 

The men, usually VA patients and veterans themselves, volley sexually harassing comments of varying degrees of degradation and leering stares at passersby. Sometimes they invade personal space or follow patients and staff further into the hospital or parking lot. Sometimes, it goes beyond harassment and becomes sexual assault. 

“It’s intimidating,” one veteran said. “I hate to say that out loud. I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t want to admit to the fear.” 

“You don’t just feel unwelcome,” another said. “You feel like they’re trying to keep you out … because you don’t belong.”

“Even staff avoid the Gauntlet,” a VA employee said. “They’ll harass anyone who walks by. Sometimes it doesn’t stop with comments or leering.”  

Nearly three dozen veterans, most of them women and a third of whom are women of color, and more than a dozen VA employees, most of them also veterans, reached out to Connecting Vets to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault at VA. The veterans and staff are from several generations and shared accounts of harassment or assault that happened in at least 26 VA medical facilities nationwide. Many of them provided documents to support their accounts, including medical records, complaints filed, text messages, emails and journal entries. 

Some of the veterans agreed to be identified in this story. Others were granted anonymity because they said they feared retaliation from the department. 

The veterans and VA staff came forward following a Congressional hearing July 22 on sexual harassment at VA, after reports and survey results showed at least one in four women veterans reported sexual harassment at the department and one in four VA employees reported sexual harassment at work. Some had told their stories before. Some are sharing them for the first time.

At that hearing, Acting VA Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers told Capitol Hill lawmakers she did not believe sexual harassment is “pervasive” at the department.

"I disagree with the premise that we have pervasive sexual harassment at VA," she said. "The data doesn't show that ... I do not agree that is pervasive." 

The veterans and VA staff who spoke with Connecting Vets disagreed.

‘No one ever stops them’

The Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center came under fire recently after Navy veteran and senior Congressional advisor for the Women Veterans Task Force Andrea Goldstein said she was sexually assaulted in the atrium last fall. The investigation was closed with no charges, due at least in part to a lack of functioning cameras in the area at the time. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie is now undergoing an Inspector General review after allegations he sought to discredit Goldstein over her report.

Marine veteran Jennie Haskamp, 45, says walking through the Washington, D.C. VA is “a gauntlet” of harassment. She learned to police how she dressed, stick close to other women, choose the entrance or hallway with the fewest men. But none of it would protect her.  

“Damn. With that hair all wild like that you look like you just had a real good time in bed. I bet you’re wild in bed, aren’t you,” an older veteran told her when they were on an elevator together. When she tried to exit the elevator, he followed her, leaned in, pressed against her and laughed.

“Well? Are you wild in bed?” 

She flashed back to the night she was raped as a teenager by three fellow Marines. She fired back at the man, and he called her uppity, told her she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring because “no man wants to handle you.”  

Sitting in the waiting room of a VA medical center, Rachel, a Navy veteran and military sexual trauma survivor, said she listened to older male veterans discuss “how women shoudn’t be in combat and what a waste of space women were in the military.” 

At the same VA, a male veteran in line for the pharmacy assumed she was waiting in line for a male veteran instead of herself, before sexually harassing other women in line. 

“He was making us all uncomfortable, but no one wanted to say anything,” she said. 

Army Capt. Melissa Bryant, a third-generation combat vet and advocate, said the Gauntlet “is very real.” 

“It’s systemic of not fully respecting women’s service in the military, the harassment we face while still in uniform, reflected in the culture of VA. You walk in … through veterans who catcall, whistle, and if they’re bold, invade your personal space. Then they spew gender-based pejoratives at you if you ignore them. No one ever stops them, admonishes them, nothing.”

Army veteran Jennifer Brande, 43, said her harassment started 17 years ago, the very first time she visited a VA shortly after leaving service, and has continued ever since. 

“Having leering old men staring at me was incredibly uncomfortable,” she said of the Bronx VA Medical Center. Staff there also never addressed her as a veteran and constantly asked her who she was there to visit, she said.

At the D.C. VA, she faced the same treatment and worse. Male patients propositioned her; one grabbed her backside. 

Brande said she’s been harassed by VA staff, but most often by “older veterans” though she said younger veterans have often stepped in to stop the men from bothering her.

Veterans and VA staff used words like “uncomfortable,” “afraid” or “threatened” to describe interactions with men in the Gauntlet. Veterans said it was similar to sexual harassment culture in the military. Those who survived military sexual trauma said it makes them feel like a victim again.

“I’ve worked hard to avoid that feeling,” one veteran said. “To be put back there, to be back in that place of fear and shame… it sets back your healing. It makes you want to run away.”  

“No one is inviting this,” a VA employee said. “No one’s asking for it.”

Some VA facilities have separate clinics or entrances for women. The entrance area of the D.C. VA was redesigned to avoid rows of chairs people had to walk past to reach the elevators. But that didn’t end the harassment and assault for Haskampe, Brande, Goldstein and others.

Separate but equal entrances don’t sit well with many of the women.

"I should never have to come in the back door,” Bryant told senators last year. “My father didn't have to go in the back door. Why should I?”

'I really needed the job'

It’s not just fellow veterans VA patients and employees have learned to be wary of. Sometimes it’s the staff of the department itself, including trusted physicians. 

One VA employee, who was at one time a homeless veteran and single mom after returning from deployment, described her boss, a high-ranking VA staffer, inviting her to dinner or drinks after work, telling her “if I ever needed any money, don’t hesitate to ask him.” 

She said she “continuously” declined his invitations. 

“I knew … that he was trying to proposition me to have some sort of an arrangement but I continued to sort of play dumb since he was my direct supervisor and I really needed the job.”

But it escalated. One day, while working at her desk outside his office, he passed her a handwritten note scrawled on lined yellow paper. It mentioned his genitals and included a proposal to become “like a sugar daddy” to her.

“I couldn’t play dumb anymore,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t want to lose my job.”

She said her military service, and the sexual trauma she endured there, taught her that sexual harassment complaints aren’t taken seriously. So she didn’t report the harassment. 

Another note followed. Then one day, he asked her to come into his office and cornered her against a wall.

“He tried to stick his tongue down my throat and I pushed him off,” she said. He told her, “I have more money than I’ll ever be able to spend in my life,” opened his desk drawer and showed off stacks of cash. 

The next day, she said he reassigned her. Someone she confided in reported her harassment and she said a VA HR representative confronted her about it but fearing for her job, she denied it happened.

“I was scared and they didn’t make me feel safe,” she said. Though her supervisor is no longer at VA, she said she still doesn’t feel comfortable coming forward. 

Rachel said sexist comments at a VA hospital singled her out to other patients. She said sexist notes have been left in her records by VA medical staff, and her disability rating decreased after an encounter with a contracted psychologist who asked her pointed, sexist questions. 

Rachel said she reported those incidents and more to the Director of Women Veteran Services at her VA, but never got a resolution. She said she also served on a women veterans advisory board, but “there was no conversation about increasing awareness of a non-harassment policy. The whole purpose of this board was to put up posters.” 

Some who experienced harassment and assault feared retaliation. Others, like Army veteran Christina Thundathil, said they don’t see the point because they don’t believe department leaders will stop it.

Thundathil, 41, a survivor of rape during military service, said a doctor at the Orlando VA Medical Center would stand behind her while checking her heart rate and stare down at her breasts. He would also stop her in the hospital hallways, look up and down her body and tell her, “You are looking good.” 

“I felt after he took it upon himself to (harass me) that he never took me seriously,” Thundathil said. “That I was just a bimbo.” 

She delayed medical care because of it, resulting in nerve damage in her legs and left arm. She turned to civilian healthcare providers for help instead. 

Thundathil did not report her harassment. 

“VA didn’t believe me about rape in the military, so why would they believe me about this?” she said. “They don’t care and no one can make them.” 

‘Pervasive’

Not only do veterans and VA staff say a culture of sexual harassment is “pervasive” among some patients, employees and VA leaders, they said it directly translates into delayed care for those who experience it. 

Brande is less likely to seek care “at any VA facility due to lack of security for women vets,” she said. Since moving to Florida, she’s “delayed getting treatment … because I dread having to go into the Miami VA” because of “creepy old veterans who are going to harass me again and then continue this every time I come into the hospital.” 

Army veteran Kayla Williams, former director of the VA Center for Women Veterans, said VA research shows that a negative environment of care disproportionately deters especially military sexual trauma survivors from seeking care, and those veterans often carry a heavier health burden and higher suicide rate. But research also shows that those who do use VA see reduced suicide rates. 

Williams, now director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Society, was herself harassed at VA when she served as director for the center. 

Women often encounter harassment, she said, but in a medical center it “makes all of this more fraught,” she said. And VA research also found that many men who harass don’t see their behavior as harmful.

“You have to convince them it’s unacceptable,” she said. “Some can be convinced, especially when they learn it deters others from care.” 

Harassment “happens all the time and it’s definitely a barrier to care,” Bryant said, especially for MST survivors. 

“It was a while before I was comfortable going back to the actual building,” Haskamp said. “And it was a huge barrier to starting therapy … I still have tremendous anxiety any time I have to physically go to the medical center. For a long time it’s why I didn’t use the VA.”

“It is an all-day event to gather the energy to deal with the crap, then to deal with the aftermath (of) anger about not being heard,” Rachel said. “I will put off going to the doctor until I absolutely have to.”

VA officials repeatedly tout the results of internal “trust surveys” that show overwhelmingly that veterans, including women, trust in the care they receive at VA. But those surveys are voluntary, and “women vets who don’t feel that way don’t go back to VA and don’t fill out surveys,” Williams said. 

Veterans and VA staff who spoke to Connecting Vets said a lack of accountability at the department ensures sexual harassment continues. 

“Until there are changes to how we transition active duty to veterans, there will continue to be challenges for women and other minority veterans,” Rachel said.

“Fellow female veteran friends of mine have gone to report harassment and nothing ever becomes of it, those people still come to the VA to work or get care and don’t change their demeanor,” Brande said. “VA has never been supportive of female veterans.”

“I want to believe the VA is a place I won’t be harassed or catcalled or disrespected,” Haskamp said. “A place I can come to heal.” 

‘Zero-tolerance’

VA declined to make Secretary Robert Wilkie or other senior leaders available for an interview for this story, but provided two other officials. Before making those officials available, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel asked Connecting Vets to turn over names, dates, times, locations and other information veterans and employees shared about their harassment and assaults, so the department could “look into them and respond appropriately.” 

Connecting Vets declined to provide that information to VA. Most of the veterans and staff CV spoke with said they feared retaliation from the department. 

Marine veteran Leila Jackson, a senior strategist in the Veterans Health Administration Office for Chief of Staff, and Army veteran Harvey Johnson, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion, said VA has a “zero-tolerance policy” for harassment and there is “no acceptable threshold.”

“One report is too many to us,” Jackson said.

Jackson and Johnson said veterans can expect to see more signs, social media posts and other public awareness campaign elements from VA on preventing sexual harassment soon, which will include how to report. VA is also rolling out additional training for staff and “bystander intervention training” to help others recognize harassment and help stop it, which Jackson said will make “a huge difference.” 

“It’s a call for action,” he said. “I think sometimes people witnessing it don’t know what to do.” 

VA research shows that some people who harass others don’t recognize their behavior is harmful, Johnson said. “Someone will say, ‘Oh, that’s just Joe.’ But that’s not acceptable.”

Jackson and Johnson said they’ve heard veterans’ concerns about the Gauntlet, or “the hallway of shame,” and said VA is working to change it. 

“That’s one of the first things I look for,” Johnson said of his tours of VA hospitals and clinics, many of which he said are working to revamp entrances, or have separate entrances. Some also have programs with staff or volunteers to help escort patients.

Johnson and Jackson said VA can’t necessarily ban or deny care to a veteran patient who harasses others, but it has a system to flag problem patients and can restrict their movements on VA property, or require they have a VA police escort. 

When someone is harassed at VA, Johnson said it should be “reported, properly triaged and stops immediately. That’s what I’m going to look for. That’s something we’re really starting to saturate the force with.” 

Noel defended VA, saying “the numbers prove we are making progress” and citing an increasing number of women seeking care at VA, the internal surveys, the number of women who work at VA, Jackson’s newly created position heading up VHA harassment prevention efforts, and VA’s national anti-harassment campaign. Noel did not cite any data showing incidents of harassment or assault are decreasing at the department.

Noel said reporting harassment and assault is “the best way to ensure problems are fixed and create a more welcoming environment moving forward.”

“We can’t do anything about it if we don’t know about it,” Jackson said. “We want people to feel safe.” 

“We take reported harassment allegations seriously,” Johnson said. “We’re not tolerating this … Everyone should feel welcome and safe. We are committed to changing the culture at VA.” 

Veterans and visitors can report to patient advocates, VA police and the Women Veterans Call Center. Call or text 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Employees can report to the Harassment Prevention Program, VA police or the Disruptive Behavior Reporting System. Call 1-888-566-3982, option 3. 

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual harassment or assault, call the National Sexual Assault hotline at 800-656-HOPE or chat online at online.rainn.org

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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