Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is any sexual harassment, assault, or continued sexual threat that service members experience while in military service.  Both men and women can be victims of MST, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs offers free treatment for those who have suffered Military Sexual Trauma or assault.  (Federal law Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D).

Both men and women are at risk of Military Sexual Trauma.  It is believed that the reports of sexual assault or harassment of military service members is widely underreported.  National data from the VA’s national screening program revealed that about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men responded “yes,” that they experienced MST, when screened by their VA health care provider.  It’s important to keep in mind that this data speaks only to the rate of MST among Veterans who have chosen to seek VA health care and cannot be used to make an estimate of the actual rates of sexual assault and harassment experiences among all individuals serving in the U.S. Military.  Among those who were screened, they all were very interested in seeking treatment.

Military Sexual Trauma is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health condition, and as with other forms of trauma, there are a variety of reactions that Veterans can have in response to MST.  The type, severity, and duration of the trauma, and other contributing factors like race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other cultural variables can also affect the impact of MST.

Although trauma can be a life-changing event, people are often remarkably resilient after the experience.  Many individuals recover without professional help; others may generally function well in their life but continue to experience some level of difficulties or have strong reactions in certain situations.  For some Veterans, the experience of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health in significant ways, even many years later.  Some of the experiences both female and male survivors of MST may have include:

  • Strong emotions (from depression to angry all the time)
  • Feelings of numbness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory
  • Problems with alcohol or other drugs
  • Difficulty with things that remind them of their experiences of sexual trauma
  • Difficulties in relationships
  • Physical health problems

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with MST, but it is not the only diagnosis that can result from MST.  VA medical record data indicates that in addition to PTSD, the diagnoses most frequently associated with MST among users of VA health care are depression and other mood disorders, and substance use disorders.

There are many free of charge services for Veterans who have experienced MST.  Every VA health care system has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues.  This person can help Veterans find and access VA services and programs, as well as state/federal benefits and community resources that might be helpful.

Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma.  There are many benefits from individual or group therapy.  The most effective course of action is to work through the anxiety, fear, embarrassment, or anger.  Thousands of active military members and veterans are victims of sexual harassment and assault every year.  Finding a community to share your experience with can be very healing.