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Shining a Spotlight on Military Sexual Trauma

June 30, 2021

By Melissa Riddle Chalos

The brave men and women who serve our country in the military experience many difficult stressors that ordinary citizens do not. Whether they’re in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, National Guard, or Coast Guard, life in the armed forces is intense, stressful and often unpredictable — regardless of whether or not any active war zone duty is performed.

While in the service, these veterans don’t control where they live, where they work, or when they’ll be moved. As they are assigned from one post to the next, they are often separated from their families. They are subject to military law and often do not have the same rights that civilians take for granted. And this is all before they ever step foot into a combat zone.

It’s no wonder, then, that our veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental health issues during and after active duty. It’s so common — and so culturally on display in movies and television — we almost expect these traumas and issues in our veterans. 

But there’s one trauma we often hear very little about: military sexual trauma.

55% of women and 38% of men have experienced sexual harassment while serving, and 23% of women have reported sexual assault.

What Is Military Sexual Trauma?

Military sexual trauma (MST) is the experience of sexual harassment or assault at any point during served time in the forces. It happens to both women and men and can occur at any point in a military career while working on base, whether it’s during training, wartime, or peacetime. The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) provides the following as examples of military sexual trauma:

  • Forced or coerced sexual encounters
  • Sexual encounters perpetrated while a person is unwilling or unable to give consent
  • Inappropriate sexual jokes and lewd remarks
  • Unwanted physical contact that makes you uncomfortable
  • Repeated sexual advances
  • Offers of something in exchange for sexual favors

MST is not a diagnosis or condition, but it is an experience that, if left unaddressed, may perpetuate PTSD, depression, and substance abuse, among many other issues that can dramatically reduce your quality of life.

These are symptoms that plague any person who has been subjected to sexual assault, harassment, or trauma. But when sexual trauma happens in the military, there are few protections for victims because there is no independent human resource department to which incidents can be reported. Military rules don’t involve the police. MST accounts must go up the chain of command, which is why it often goes unreported. Even when it is reported, it is rarely prosecuted. 

What Is Military Sexual Trauma? - The Meadows

How Common Is It?

So how common is military sexual trauma? In the Veterans’ Affairs (VA) healthcare system, an estimated 1 in 4 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans report experiencing MST. Women are, by far, at greater risk of MST, which accounts for the higher percentage, but nearly 40% of veterans who disclose MST to Veterans’ Affairs are men

Sexual harassment is even more common. The VA also reports 55% of women and 38% of men have experienced sexual harassment while serving, and 23% of women have reported sexual assault. Since this data is from victims who seek treatment after the fact, the stats are most likely even higher from those who never report MST. 

In a recent video guest essay in The New York Times featuring several military advocates seeking to reduce military sexual assault, one veteran who had been raped twice in her barracks room said, “You are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow service member than be shot by an enemy at war.” 

Thousands of victims of MST file reports each year, but very few of those make it up the chain of command. In fact, according to Col. Don Christensen, former chief prosecutor for the US Air Force, out of the 20,500 sexual assault cases that were prosecuted in 2018, only 108 people were convicted. Thankfully, change may be coming as the secretary of defense is currently endorsing a bill that would remove sexual assault and other cases from the chain of command. 

The Aftereffects of Military Sexualized Trauma

When you experience military sexual trauma, there is a wide range of physical and mental health issues and stressors that come with the territory. Some are immediate. Others may take months or years to surface. 

These symptoms can vary from person to person, but include:

  • Difficulty with relationships or social functioning
  • Difficulty controlling or expressing emotion or feeling emotionally numb
  • Self-doubt, shame, low self-esteem
  • Attention, memory or concentration deficit 
  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares
  • Physical issues like stomach problems, obesity or significant weight loss, chronic pain
  • Social isolation, avoidance or trouble with authority figures (trouble keeping a job)
  • Difficulty with sexual intimacy, arousal, pain during sex or avoidance
  • Unsafe, harmful or risky behaviors like cutting, suicidal thoughts, or aggression

For MST survivors who experience discrimination related to race, gender or sexual orientation during or after their trauma, the impact of these symptoms can be especially debilitating. The humiliation and stigma can make seeking help — especially while still enlisted — a seemingly impossible undertaking. Male survivors may be unlikely to report military sexual assault or trauma for fear of being judged as weak. Women, who are a minority in the military, often feel unheard, unseen, and powerless when reaching out for help with the aftereffects of MST. 

But until survivors of MST take back what was stolen by seeking help to overcome the challenges of PTSD and sexual assault, it is as if the victimization never ends. Their health and their lives continue to be unfairly taken away from them.

If left unaddressed, MST may perpetuate PTSD, depression and substance abuse, among many other issues.

What Should You Do?

If you’ve experienced MST and are suffering the aftereffects, The Meadows is in-network with TRICARE, which may cover the cost of inpatient mental health treatment. Whether you’re currently a private citizen or in service, our outpatient centers also offer specialized treatment tailored to your specific needs. 

There is no shame or stigma in seeking help. 

Whether in inpatient or outpatient treatment, you’ll learn how MST has negatively impacted your health, relationships, and self-esteem, and be able to take the first step toward gaining control of your life. Health and healing for sexual trauma is within reach. We at The Meadows would love to help get you there.