Washington, DC – Today, Congresswoman Julia Brownley (CA-26), Chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) issued the following statements after VA released a letter calling into question a Committee staffer’s allegations of sexual assault at a VA facility this September. In the letter, Secretary Wilkie claimed, “We believe that VA is a safe place for all Veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.” The Members statements are below:
“Whether intentional or not, Secretary Willkie’s statement illustrates how much work we have ahead of us to make sure all veterans feel supported coming forward when they are harassed or assaulted. The Secretary should apologize and use this as a teachable moment to be a leader in stopping sexual assault at VA facilities, by first and foremost, making sure that no one is shamed or shunned for coming forward,” said Congresswoman Brownley. “Secretary Wilkie’s implication that coming forward to report sexual assault actually hurts women, is a shockingly tone-deaf response, and a bright line that succinctly illustrates the cultural problem that pervades VA. If we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it is that being heard and being supported for coming forward is an essential first step to stopping sexual assault and to ending the unfortunate culture that allows it.”
“To cast doubt on credible, serious, and concerning claims about how women are treated at VA is outrageous. Women veterans are already hesitant to come forward and report sexual harassment and sexual assault because they fear being dismissed and retaliated against. I have called for a culture shift at VA. When my staffer bravely came forward in September, she did so in the spirit of wanting other women veterans to feel safe. But the Secretary’s flippant letter is only further evidence to my staffer and others that coming forward is punished, speaking out retaliated against, and that a hostile culture at VA is tolerated. Every day women veterans visit VA facilities across the country to access some of the best care available– care that is specialized to their needs, their service, and their experiences. But the problematic culture of harassment while trying to access care is not new for VA. To point out stark evidence that this culture exists is not a disservice to VA or women veterans,” said Chairman Mark Takano.
Chairman Takano added, “I am aghast that Secretary Wilkie would think it appropriate to call into question allegations of sexual assault raised by one of our nation’s veterans. And for VA– an agency charged with providing trauma-informed care for survivors of sexual harassment and assault– to itself retraumatize and defame a fellow veteran, is disgusting. VA has put up posters and held trainings. But Secretary Wilkie has failed to make that training mandatory, treat allegations with the seriousness they deserve, and force VA to confront an unwelcoming culture that can be hostile for women veterans. Those facts being true, it’s absurd to suggest that ‘VA is a safe place for all Veterans to enter and receive care and services.’ I am disappointed that as a cabinet secretary he would sign his name on such a shameful letter. Our veterans deserve better.”