WASHINGTON — House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Riverside) and Subcommittee on Health Chairwoman Julia Brownley (D-Oxnard) on Jan. 15 issued the following statements after VA released a letter calling into question a committee staffer’s allegations of sexual assault at a VA facility last September.
Andrea Goldstein, a staff member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Women Veterans Task Force, alleged that she was assaulted on Sept. 20, 2019 by a m an inside the front atrium of the VA Medical Cener in Washington, D.C. She told The New York Times that he slammed his body against hers and said, “You Look like you could use a good time.”
Federal authorities have declined to press charges.
Takano and Brownley took issue with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who 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.”
“To cast doubt on credible, serious, and concerning claims about how women are treated at VA is outrageous,” said Takano. “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.
“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.”
“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,” said Brownley. “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.
“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.”
Inspector General’s Letter
The department’s own inspector general, Michael Missal, rebuked Wilkie for suggesting that Goldstein, a Navy reserve lieutenant and senior policy advisor for the Women Veterans Task Force, made “unsubstantiated claims,” according to Military.com.
“Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the Department that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Missal said in a strongly worded letter to Wilkie on Jan. 15.
Missal also cited what he said were Wilkie’s “inaccurate characterizations” in claiming vindication for the VA after neither the IG’s office nor the Justice Department found enough evidence to support a sex assault or harassment case.
“Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated,” Missal wrote to Wilkie.
Visit to VA Medical Center
On Sept. 26, Takano toured the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center, met with VA leadership, and spoke with women veterans in an effort to address sexual assault and harassment on VA campuses. He was accompanied by Goldstein and Disabled American Veterans National Legislator Director Joy Ilem.
“We’re here today because sadly across our country veterans are being sexually harassed or assaulted, disrespected, their service diminished, their voices silenced,” Takano said. “These women and men served our country and they earned the right to be here. All veterans, regardless of gender, should have the expectation of safety at VA facilities. But for too many, this has not been the reality. No veteran should feel unsafe visiting a VA facility.
“Earlier this Congress, we launched the Women Veterans Task Force, led by Chairwoman Julia Brownley. Since then, Chairwoman Brownley’s Task Force has held roundtables and hearings, visited facilities across the country and written to VA, asking them to address sexual harassment at VA facilities. And still, it’s clear we have work to do for the 2 million women veterans have served our country.
“We’re also here today because these instances have now impacted our committee much more directly — one of our own experienced a sexual assault right here on this campus. Today, along with Chairwoman Brownley, I am calling on VA to immediately institute a department-wide and anti-sexual harassment and assault policy. This abuse doesn’t happen everywhere, it doesn’t happen every time, but it happens too much, and too often it’s at a VA facility.
“And once again, I’m asking VA to ensure that all VA staff have MANDATORY bystander intervention training to identify and defuse incidents of harassment and assault, support veterans who report an incident and cooperate with the proper law enforcement to keep these veterans safe.
“No veteran, family member, caregiver, VA employee or contractor should be the victim of sexual assault or harassment at a VA facility. EVER.”
Goldstein gave the following statement during the VA visit: “On Friday, Sept. 20, I was sexually assaulted by an individual that I suspect is another veteran in the atrium of the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center while waiting for an appointment. Several employees witnessed the assault and said nothing.
“In addition, I reported the incident to multiple employees: a worker at the information desk, the patient advocate, and finally, my doctor before police were called. Since then, my case has been handled with compassion and urgency.
“I have almost exclusively used VA for my healthcare since I left active duty three years ago. I have done so not by necessity, but by choice. VA has provided me with excellent access to timely, high-quality healthcare. And because of my service connection, it is all without co-pays.
“A few months ago, when I had an urgent medical issue, it was this facility that saw me on the same day, before a private provider even returned my phone call.
“On Friday, I experienced a crime and indignity that women veterans around the nation face while trying to access healthcare. At least one in four women veterans experience sexual or gender-based harassment at VA facilities.
“We are not faceless stats. We are veterans, we are your neighbor, your co-worker, we are partners, friends, and parents.
“Posters are not policy. I am hopeful that VA will take this opportunity to develop policies that will create accountability measures that will ensure VA is a safe and welcoming environment for ALL veterans. In fact, when I was assaulted, I had a copy of draft legislation in my bag that could help us do just that.
“I wish more women veterans used VA. The healthcare I have received at this VA and others has been transformational. I will continue to use this facility for my healthcare, as is my right. When I visit I will proudly walk through that front door, and I’m asking VA to do more to ensure all veterans can feel safe doing the same.”