Navy Reserve Lt. Andrea Goldstein, a congressional staffer on female veterans' issues, recounted Thursday how she was groped and shoved at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center in the latest of a troubling series of veteran-on-veteran assaults and harassments at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.
There were several witnesses to the daytime assault, Goldstein said, adding it took place "right up front" in the facility's atrium last week. But "they did nothing" to help or intervene, and her assailant escaped, she said.
One witness tried to tell the assailant to stop, but there was no immediate response from VA staff, Goldstein said, adding that police were not called until she reported the incident to a doctor. It was first reported by The New York Times.
"I do believe my assailant was a veteran," she said.
Goldstein, a senior policy adviser on the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Women Veterans Task Force, said she was carrying with her at the time of the incident legislative proposals on curbing sexual harassment and assault on VA campuses.
She said she had previously received "timely, high-quality health care, all without co-pays" at the Washington hospital.
"I will continue to use the facility," said Goldstein, who served seven years on active duty as a Navy intelligence officer and now is in the Reserve.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, joined Goldstein for a news conference in front of the hospital, saying, "All veterans, regardless of gender, should have an expectation of safety" when they come to the VA for the health care they've earned.
"One of our own has experienced a sexual assault right here on this campus," he said. "It's still clear we have work to do" on behalf of two million female veterans.
Takano called on the VA to make training mandatory for all personnel on sexual assault and harassment.
However, "this goes beyond training," he added. "Veterans themselves need to be held to a higher level of behavior."
In recent years, the VA has posted signs at facilities warning against catcalling, other forms of harassment, and sexual assault. But earlier this month, federal authorities and the VA's Inspector General began investigating a series of sexual assaults at the Beckley, West Virginia, VA Medical Center.
One patient, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told WVVA News he is among more than a dozen patients sexually assaulted at the Beckley hospital.
U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart in West Virginia issued a statement saying, "My office takes these allegations very seriously and is working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to ensure this matter is investigated thoroughly and quickly."
Last year, in response to female veterans' complaints about harassment by other vets at VA medical centers, the department responded to the issue in website postings and signs at facilities warning against foul language and unwanted touching.
Signs at the D.C. medical center began to appear, saying, "Catcalls and stares are not compliments, they're harassment."
The hospital also posted on its Facebook page a list of behavioral "do's" and "don'ts." For instance, it is OK to talk about the weather, but "commenting on someone's body" is not.
At the flagship Michael E. Debakey VA Medical Center in Houston, a sign says, "There is no excuse for harassment."
"Cat calls NOT welcome. Staring and whistling -- NOT okay at the VA," the Houston medical center said in a release.
At the news conference Thursday, Goldstein said that, in addition to several other veterans in the atrium, "several employees witnessed the assault and said nothing,"
"I reported the incident to multiple employees -- a worker at the information desk, the patient advocate, and finally my doctor -- before police were called," she said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Goldstein declined to say whether the assault had been recorded by hospital cameras.
She said her work with the Senate committee had shown that, "At least one in four women veterans experienced sexual or gender-based harassment at VA facilities" while seeking health care.
Goldstein said she is still stunned that harassment and assault could come from another veteran.
“We are not faceless staff. We are veterans. We are your neighbor. We are your co-worker. We are partners, friends and parents," she said.
Her complaint has been turned over to the VA's Inspector General and local law enforcement, VA spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said in a statement.
"These are serious allegations, and VA is treating them as such," she said. "VA will not tolerate this alleged behavior, and we are committed to delivering justice."
Melissa Bryant, a former Army intelligence captain and now legislative director for the American Legion, attended the news conference. She said later that harassment of women at the D.C. medical center has become almost routine.
In a Twitter statement, she said, "I can personally attest to what I can describe at best as feeling uncomfortable when being catcalled outside [the D.C. medical center] and inside by other patients and veterans. We should not feel dehumanized when seeking care."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.