MILBRIDGE, Maine — Ruth Moore was knee deep in mud and manure Thursday morning on her rural Washington County farm when she got a phone call from the Department of Veterans Affairs with news that is as vindicating as it is life-changing.
Moore, 45, a military sexual assault survivor, learned that she will receive $405,000 in back benefits for claims related to the assaults that had been denied by the Veterans Administration.
“I’m still shaking,” the mother and outspoken advocate for military sexual assault victims said later that afternoon.
While the money is major, it’s not the most important thing.
“They apologized for it happening,” Moore said, her voice cracking with emotion. “The VA admitted that they made a clear and undeniable mistake. They overlooked my treatment record and my service record back to 1993. It was the first one that was done with military sexual trauma. This gives veterans all over the country hope that they will make it right.”
Moore, who grew up poor in the tiny Washington County town of Pembroke, enlisted in the U.S. Navy when she was a high school student. She was a bright teenager who was excited about her future in the military, but those dreams were violently derailed when she was sexually assaulted twice by her immediate supervisor — once in retaliation for her asking the military chaplain for help — while stationed at a base on the Azores. After being assaulted, Moore grew despondent and tried to kill herself, which led to Navy officials throwing her into the brig — the military jail — for a few days.
After that, she was sent to a psychiatric ward in Bethesda, Maryland, where she was wrongly diagnosed with borderline personality disorder — which she later learned was standard operating procedure for people who said they had been sexually assaulted while in uniform. Military higher-ups denied that the rapes had happened, and her attacker was never brought to justice, she told the BDN last year.
That trauma of the sexual assaults left deep tracks. Moore contracted a sexually transmitted disease, which she links to the nine miscarriages she suffered later in her life. She also began to struggle with social phobia and depression, got divorced from her first husband about a decade after the assaults and was homeless and living out of her van for a few weeks.
But Moore did not give up, she told the BDN. She met her husband, Butch, when they both were raking blueberries, and he encouraged her to keep fighting to receive benefits from the Veterans Administration. In 2004, the administration gave her a rating of 30 percent disability for depression, and when she reapplied in 2009, an investigator found that her military records had been tampered with and expunged. The VA changed her rating then to 70 percent disability.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree helped her to fight for the back benefits, Moore said. Pingree also last year introduced the Ruth Moore Act, a bill aimed at reducing the standard of proof for victims of military sexual assault so that they can more easily obtain benefits.
“It was wrong for the VA to deny Ruth’s claims over 20 years ago, and although nothing can undo the pain and trauma that she has suffered, at last Ruth will be getting the benefits she earned and deserved,” Pingree wrote in a news release issued Thursday.
As of this week, Moore has been given a 100 percent total and permanent disability rating, dating back to 1993, she told the BDN.
Pingree and her office have worked over the last two years to help survivors of military sexual trauma who have had disability claims denied obtain about $900,000 in back benefits.
“When the VA says you’re not disabled because of post-traumatic stress disorder, or we don’t believe this has happened to you, it really is a denial of this horrible thing that has happened to them,” Willy Ritch, Pingree’s spokesman, said Thursday. “When the VA says, ‘We’ve made a mistake. You are entitled to this settlement,’ it’s an acknowledgment.”
Moore said that although her namesake law is still being worked on by the U.S. Senate, she is pleased that one of the most important provisions — that the VA has to report military sexual assaults to Congress — was incorporated into the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
“This is a strong, strong message,” she said Thursday.
Moore said that the financial windfall of the back benefits will not change her, or her family, in the most important ways.
“I’m still going to wear $7 suits from Goodwill,” she said.
But the money will allow Ruth and Butch Moore to move forward with their dream of creating a nonprofit to empower sexual assault survivors to reconnect with or rediscover their humanity, she said. That nonprofit will be called “Internity,” compiled from the words interconnected humanity.
“We’re going to move forward to show veterans how they can fight to turn this pain around,” she said.
And even though she has come a long way from the days of being scared and homeless, financially and in many other ways, Moore will still continue to do her own work at the farm.
“We really just want to continue being who we are,” she said. “Shoveling out the barnyard is very refreshing when you’ve dealt with politics for so long.”