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Woman Trying to End Sexual Assault at V.A. Centers Says She Is Attacked in One


WASHINGTON — A senior policy adviser on female veterans issues for the House said she was assaulted last week at the V.A. Medical Center in Washington by a man who slammed his body against hers and then pressed himself against her in the center’s cafe.

The woman, Andrea Goldstein, a reserve Navy intelligence officer and a lead staff member for the Women Veterans Task Force on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, was waiting for a smoothie at a cafe in the busy center, which has one of the most celebrated women’s clinics in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system.

A man slammed her below the waist and told her that “you look like you could use a good time,” Ms. Goldstein said in an interview. “He pressed his entire body against mine.”

Ms. Goldstein said she had just come from a meeting on Capitol Hill and was carrying in her purse the draft of a bill designed to curb sexual assault and harassment when she became a victim of it. She said that she was able to extricate herself and then complained to several center employees, but that only when she got to her doctor were the police called.

The incident underscores an intractable problem for many V.A. hospitals across the nation as they scramble to provide better health care for the rising number of women in the system.

Many female veterans praise the care they get at the hospitals, but describe a difficult journey walking through them, in which they may be harassed or assaulted by male veterans, or have their own status as veterans questioned.

While the number of women using veteran health services has tripled since 2000 — to about 500,000 from a little over 150,000 — they still make up only 8 percent of patients. Two million women are in the American veteran population — amounting to roughly 10 percent of it — but they make up 16 percent of the active-duty military force, and so are a growing client base for the V.A.

“I have preferred the care I get at the V.A.” Ms. Goldstein said. “The women’s clinic is beautiful, and the staff there is wonderful. But that environment is in stark contrast to the rest of the D.C. V.A., which is very male and very chaotic.”

Representative Mark Takano, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee — which has spent much of the past few years trying to address female veterans’ complaints at these centers — wrote a letter to Robert Wilkie, the secretary of veterans affairs, seeking an arrest in Ms. Goldstein’s case. Ms. Goldstein said she did not learn her attacker’s identity but noted that he was not an employee and so more likely was a veteran seeking care.

“My staff have received reports that patients, especially women veterans, frequently experience sexual harassment, and have been victims of sexual assault at V.A. medical facilities,” Mr. Takano wrote. “These victims also report that actions taken by V.A. employees to appropriately address these incidents are inconsistent and often unsatisfactory.”

Christina Mandreucci, the press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said, “These are serious allegations, and V.A. is treating them as such.”

She said the department had turned the incident over to its inspector general and other law enforcement personnel, and that a criminal investigation was underway. “V.A. will not tolerate this alleged behavior, and we are committed to delivering justice,” Ms. Mandreucci said. “That’s why, in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we can’t comment further.”

Mr. Takano also pushed for the department to improve its sexual harassment and assault training and procedures nationwide.

“Every V.A. employee should be trained to take immediate action, including intervening to prevent further assault or harassment, contacting law enforcement, and providing aid and assistance to individuals reporting sexual harassment and assault,” he said in his letter. The letter included draft legislation the committee is pushing on those matters.

The department has scrambled to adjust to the rising population of female veterans by hiring more women’s health care providers, expanding the health care service it offers women and trying to improve the culture. But Mr. Takano’s letter did not mark the first time sexual harassment and assault at V.A. facilities have attracted the attention of Congress.

The Women Veterans Task Force that Ms. Goldstein works for was formed in the spring in part to deal with the issue and has held hearings and round-table discussions on the issue of harassment at department facilities. Four female veterans recently began a Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus to address those issues and more facing female veterans.

“Addressing this issue has been a priority that my bosses have been discussing from Day 1,” Ms. Goldstein said.

She said she had arrived for her appointment at the medical facility after a meeting with Representative Julia Brownley, Democrat of California, who is chairwoman of the task force. “We had put finishing touches of a bill which was in my purse,” she said.

Ms. Goldstein, who served in the Navy on active duty from 2009 to 2016, and some members of Congress believe a more unified system of dealing with harassment could help the department cope with the problem, which they say prevents some female veterans from using — or returning to — its health care facilities.

“I will continue to use the V.A. and walk through the front door,” Ms. Goldstein said. “I really don’t want women veterans to be discouraged by this. I frankly have received lifesaving care from the V.A., and I hope the V.A. gives the necessary attention to this issue so all veterans have access to the health care they have earned and deserve.”

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