It took Navy Airman Apprentice Elena Giordano nine years to be granted service-connected disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for the post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered after multiple sexual assaults.
Until recently, she was also not eligible for any VA medical care or other benefits because she was told she had not served long enough. It's a common problem for women and men who leave the service early because of sexual trauma.
"I was involuntarily discharged early. So I was not considered a real veteran," she said. "Yet I have spent the last 10 years suffering with PTSD because of the multiple traumas I endured there. And the second trauma of the VA denying what I'd gone through, especially when I filed my first claim in 2005, and it was denied. This is another issue for many of us that really needs attention."
After the first rape onboard a Navy aircraft carrier, Giordano said she immediately requested reassignment as a police officer, "thinking I'd be safe there. I wasn't."
The second rape happened after she was there only about a month, she said.
"After that rape, I began to lose it and was coerced into reporting by my supervisor. I had completely changed overnight. I was on edge. I couldn't sleep, so I was showing up to work late, failing inspections, et cetera. I had been a top-notch sailor before this. My supervisor told me he was going to have to punish me if I didn't have a good excuse for my sudden change in behavior. So I was cornered," she said.
"Either I told him what really happened and face the inevitable humiliation and potential retaliation, or I didn't tell him, and risk the rapes continuing and being punished for my inability to function anymore. . . . I told, and that was the end of my career."
She said she "was promptly treated like I'd confessed to a crime and was labeled crazy, and then booted out."
"From the day I reported to the day I was standing at my front door was less than three weeks," she said. "And we were out to sea in the middle of the Pacific when it happened. Mind-blowing."
When she returned home to Arizona, the VA didn't notice that she had served for only nine months, technically too short a time to qualify for medical treatment.
"So I was initially enrolled in medical care. Then a few months later, a clerk noticed the error and told me I wasn't a real veteran and that I'd be charged if I ever came back," Giordano said. "So from October 2005 on, I was not allowed to have any medical treatment until now. Nor any other VA benefits, outside of counseling related to the military sexual trauma."
At the urging of her vet center counselor, she filed for compensation for PTSD in 2005. In 2006, the department denied her disability benefits, saying there was no official report of a rape to her command, even though "I'd been punished for supposedly admitting to having sex onboard, and was wrongfully diagnosed with a preexisting personality disorder," Giordano said.
"I told the VA about my command's coverup in my statement, and even people I'd served with stated the same. Didn't matter. My discharge paper said I was discharged early for misconduct, and that was pretty much all they saw."
Her story, though, has a happy ending.
In November, she was granted both health care and benefits, as part of VA's widespread push to help veterans wrongfully denied benefits because of a lack of evidence.
VA is allowing many cases like Giordano's to be reopened under the new guidelines of "markers" rather than paper-trail evidence such as police reports or medical-treatment records that "most of us won't have because it was covered up," she said.
But she hopes the problem does not continue to affect other veterans granted early release because they were victims of sexual assault while on duty.
"It is my hope that no one else ever has to wait a decade like I did to receive the only justice most of us will get at this point. What happened to me in service was a grave injustice. Then having those horrors be denied by the VA a year later was more than I could bear," Giordano said. "I shut down in defeat for the next eight years. Finally winning this claim is like I've been given my life back. My trauma and injustices have been validated. My honor is no longer in question. I'm no longer ashamed to say I'm a veteran."
Giordano is also a member of the Facebook group Women Veterans 4 VA Equality, which she said has been a big help.