By Ellen Koucky, Ph. D
Military sexual trauma (MST) is an important issue that affects current service members, veterans, and our country’s military forces as a whole. The official definition of military sexual trauma includes sexual assault or threatening sexual harassment (Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D) that occurs against one’s will during time of service.
Both male and female servicemembers can experience MST. The location of the event, the identity of the perpetrator, and whether the servicemember was on or off duty at the time of the event are not relevant when defining incidents of MST.
As part of the VA’s national screening program, veterans who initiate healthcare within the VA system are asked whether they experienced MST during their time of service. Data from this national screening program indicate that approximately 1 in 3 female veterans and 1 in 50 male veterans report a history of MST.
However, it is important to recognize that these numbers may underrepresent the true prevalence of MST, as some veterans may choose not to disclose their experience or may report it at a later point in time.
Regardless of when a veteran chooses to disclose his or her history of MST, the Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) has resources that can help.
Like sexual harassment or sexual assault experienced in the civilian world, MST can be associated with a variety of symptoms. Some difficulties reported by MST survivors include experiencing strong emotions or emotional numbness, using substances to cope, avoiding reminders of the event, and difficulties with relationships. Some MST survivors also report troubles with sleep, difficulties with concentration, and physical health problems.
Veterans who experienced MST may be eligible for MST-related services even though they may not be eligible for general VHA enrollment.
The VA healthcare system offers numerous levels of care for MST depending on the needs of the individual. These resources include individual and group mental health treatment, psychiatric medications, and medical care. Patients can access care in person or through telehealth video visits. Services received through the VA are confidential.
Regardless of whether the event occurred days, months, or many years ago, service members can begin the road to recovery from military sexual trauma and the VA is here to help.
Every VA hospital has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues. Jesse Brown VA Medical Center’s MST Coordinator, Dr. Ellen Koucky, can be reached at (312) 569-6784 or (312) 569-MSTI.
Additional national resources are available including the Beyond MST smartphone app (free to download on iPhone and Android phones) and the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800 273-8255. Reach out today as we believe you, and we believe in you. You’re not alone.
Dr. Ellen Koucky is a staff clinician in the PTSD Clinic at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and the Military Sexual Assault (MST) Coordinator.