THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS INFORMATION ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT,
TRAUMA, AND SEXUAL HARRASSMENT
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is important for service members, veterans, and their families to understand this issue, and what resources are available to help.
What is Military Sexual Trauma?
During military service, service members may receive upsetting and unwanted sexual attention, including sexual assault or sexual harassment. “Military Sexual Trauma” or MST is a term used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to refer to these experiences. The official definition of MST used by the VA, given by federal law, is U.S. Code 1720D of Title 38, which states “Psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.”
The Department of Defense defines Military Sexual Trauma (MST) as rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. While MST affects both men and women in uniform, servicewomen are at much higher risk for sexual assault and harassment. The experience of MST may lead to conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other mental health and physical health issues. The experience also often erodes the trust a service member has in their unit, friends, Chain of Command, and military experience overall. Preventing and prosecuting the issues of sexual harassment and assault in the U.S. Armed Forces continues to be a serious problem.
According to the Department of Defense, reports of sexual assault involving service members increased by roughly 10 percent in fiscal 2017. Of the 6,769 reports, 5,864 involved service member victims while the remaining 905 were U.S. civilians, foreign nationals or those whose status wasn’t available.
Of the service member victims, 5,277 reported incidents that occurred while they were in the service, an increase of 10 percent from fiscal 2016.
Of the 5,277 service members reporting assaults, 4,193 were women, a 13% increase over fiscal 2016. Reports by men were flat compared with 2016.
The DOD investigated 3,567 cases for sexual assault involving service members and found sufficient evidence to take some kind of disciplinary action in 2,218 of the cases.
There were 146 reports of retaliation in 2017, compared to 84 in 2016, and the number of sexual harassment complaints jumped by 16 percent.
MST reporting increased in all four military branches.
Barriers to justice
The dynamics of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment that occur in the military are different than in civilian life. MST triggers intense feelings of betrayal in survivors as it upsets deeply held belief systems about loyalty to fellow service members and respect for chain of command. In this way, MST is similar to incest, as perpetrators and victims are akin to family members. Perpetrators of MST often wield control over the victim, especially because perpetrators are likely to outrank the victims. If the perpetrators are in the victims’ chain of command, reporting the incident can seem impossible. Victims of MST often feel that they need to make a choice between their military career and seeking justice for their trauma. Victims are often at risk of retaliation by perpetrators, and commanders often fail to enforce the protection of those who report MST. Commanders and fellow service members may blame the victim for ruining a “good soldier’s reputation” or try to convince the victim that what happened was “no big deal” and not worth causing conflict in the unit.
Finally, unlike in civilian life, victims of MST cannot simply quit their jobs or even sue their employers. If commanders fail to enforce sexual assault and equal opportunity policy, MST survivors are left with few options for redress and are often forced to accept their situation and live in fear of further harassment or abuse.
Who can you turn to?
Although MST can be a very difficult experience, there are treatments available that can significantly improve your quality of life. Treatment often involves addressing any immediate health and safety concerns, followed by counseling to help you learn new ways of thinking, practice positive behaviors, and take active steps to cope with the effects of MST. Treatment may focus on strategies for dealing with difficult emotions and memories or, for veterans who are ready, treatment may involve actually talking in depth about their MST experiences.
At the VA, veterans can receive free, confidential treatment for mental and physical health conditions related to MST. You may be able to receive this care even if you are not eligible for other VA services. To receive these services, you do not need a VA service-connected disability rating, and you don’t need to have reported the incident when it happened nor to have other documentation that it occurred.
Knowing that MST survivors may have special concerns, every VA health care facility has an MST Coordinator who can answer any questions you might have about VA’s MST services. To learn more about MST services at the VA, click here. VA has a range of services available to meet veterans where they are in their recovery process:
Every VA health care facility has providers knowledgeable about treatment for problems related to MST. Many have specialized outpatient mental health services focusing on sexual trauma. Vet Centers also have specially trained sexual trauma counselors.
The VA has more than 20 programs nationwide offering specialized MST treatment in a residential or inpatient setting. These programs are for veterans who need more intense treatment and support.
Because some veterans won’t feel comfortable in mixed-gender treatment settings, some facilities have separate programs for men and women. All residential and inpatient MST programs have separate sleeping areas for men and women.
Some factors that may be unique to MST
You may have had to continue to live and work with your perpetrator, and even rely on him or her for essential things like food, health care, or watching your back on patrol. You may have been worried about damaging the team spirit of your unit if your perpetrator was in the same unit. You may have been worried about appearing weak or vulnerable, and thoughts that others would not respect you. You may have thought that if others found out, it would end your career or your chances for promotion. For these and other reasons, the experience of MST can put service members in some no-win situations and be emotionally difficult for them to resolve as veterans.
What can you do to help manage your reactions to your experiences of MST?
Sleep is important, as is maintaining a healthy diet by eating right. Seek medical advice for any health concerns. Avoid excessive use of alcohol and illegal drug use, and take over-the-counter and prescription drugs only as directed by your doctor. Avoid risky behavior such as unsafe sex, gambling, and reckless driving.
Recognize triggers by keeping a record to help identify situations that are more likely to worsen your symptoms. Take up a new hobby or a recreational activity that can be a healthy way to fill your time. Talking to others can help you from feeling isolated, giving friends and loved ones a chance to help you. Exercise regularly. Practice relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, or prayer.
Your close family and friends may notice that you’re having a tough time. If you feel comfortable, you may want to talk to them about what you’re experiencing. They may be able to provide support and help you find treatment that is right for you.
What resources are available?
What about other options and resources at the VA?
- The Veteran Training online self-help portal for overcoming everyday challenges includes modules on managing anger, developing parenting and problem-solving skills, and more.
- Mental health apps for veterans cover a variety of topics, ranging from PTSD to anger management to quitting smoking.
- VA TeleMental Health connects you with a VA mental health provider through a computer or mobile device in your home or at your nearest VA health facility. You can learn more about this option from your local VA medical center.
- Vet Centers provide support, counseling, and readjustment services for veterans and active duty service members (including members of the National Guard and Reserve) who have served on active military duty in any combat theater or area of hostility or have experienced a military sexual trauma. Find a Vet Center near you or call 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387) to talk with a fellow combat veteran about your experiences, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
- VA Disability Compensation for conditions related to MST. http://www.benefits.va.gov/BENEFITS/factsheets/serviceconnected/MST.pdf
- CalVet Military Sexual Assault & Trauma. https://www.calvet.ca.gov/VetServices/Pages/Military-Sexual-Trauma-MST.aspx
- Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. http://iava.org/rrrp
If you are a service member or veteran in crisis or you’re concerned about one, there are specially trained responders ready to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1) connects those in crisis, as well as their family members and friends, with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text-messaging service.
Many resources available to MST victims and survivors are free of charge. Others provide assistance in filing claims with the VA Compensation and Pension Program.