Lawmakers to VA: End Harassment of Female Vets at Medical Centers

Staff at the Chicago VA Medical Center pose with posters as part of an anti-sexual harassment campaign at the center. (Chicago VA via Facebook)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers called on Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Tuesday to step up efforts to end the sexual harassment female veterans can be subjected to by other veterans at VA medical centers.

The group from the House Veterans Affairs Committee said they are encouraged by the VA's "End Harassment" campaign, which includes the placement of signs at some hospitals stating, "Catcalls and stares are not compliments. They're harassment."

But they said more needs to be done.

"We applaud VA for funding research that systematically studied harassment of women veterans in VA health care settings," the group, including Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the committee, and ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, wrote in a letter to Wilkie.

However, "because all reporting is handled locally, there is no accountability regarding facilities that continue to fail to respond to sexual harassment," they wrote.

In a separate news release, Takano also said that training for VA staff on ending harassment should be mandatory.

A VA spokeswoman said that Wilkie would respond privately to the letter but noted that the VA began its campaign to end harassment in 2017 with advice "to help staff and veterans intervene if harassment occurs."

"We have [also] developed posters, videos and training materials and have rolled out the program at all facilities," the spokeswoman said in an email. "We have launched messaging, including 'it's not a compliment, it's harassment' directed primarily at educating male veterans that certain conduct is unacceptable."

However, Takano said in a statement, "It's clear that women veterans face unique challenges when accessing key VA care, benefits and resources." He pressed VA officials for more action.

"To change the culture at VA facilities, it's not enough to simply have sexual harassment training available," Takano said. "This training has to be both mandatory and comprehensive."

Roe, a physician and former Army doctor, said in the release that he finds it unacceptable that female vets face harassment anywhere, but it is "particularly egregious to learn of the harassment that many of them face while attempting to seek care from VA."

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, head of a new Women Veterans Task Force within the Veterans Affairs Committee, said, "VA has a responsibility to ensure a safe and respectful environment for women veterans and VA employees."

Others joining in the letter to Wilkie were Reps. Neal Dunn, R-Florida; Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire; and Jack Bergman, R-Michigan, a retired Marine lieutenant general.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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