By Ellen Koucky, Ph.D
Military sexual trauma is an important issue that affects current servicemembers, veterans who have served, and our country’s military forces as a whole. Military sexual trauma, also known as MST, includes a wide range of experiences that a servicemember may encounter during active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty for training. The official definition of military sexual trauma includes sexual assault or repeated threatening sexual harassment (Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D) that occurs against a servicemember’s will. 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. This screening process helps provide information about the prevalence of MST. It also helps inform a veteran’s medical care, including providing services to address the unique needs of MST survivors. Data from this national screening program indicate that approximately 1 in 4 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans report a history of MST when asked by their VA healthcare provider. 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 their history of military sexual trauma, the Veteran’s Health Administration has services and resources that can provide assistance.
Similar to sexual harassment or sexual assault experienced in the civilian world, military sexual trauma can be associated with a variety of symptoms. Some experiences 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 attention, concentration, and memory, and physical health problems. For veterans who experienced military sexual trauma and would like assistance with symptoms, a wide range of services exist. Every VA hospital has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues. (At the Jesse Brown VAMC in Chicago, the MST Coordinator can be reached by calling 1-312-569-MSTI). The VA healthcare system offers mental health treatment for psychological symptoms that can result from MST including individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, intensive outpatient treatment, psychiatric medications and residential treatment facilities. Veterans who experienced MST may be eligible for these mental health services even though they may not be eligible for other VA services. Regardless of whether the event occurred days, months, or many years ago, you can begin the road to recovery from military sexual trauma and the VA is here to help.
Dr. Ellen Koucky is a staff clinician in the PTSD Clinic at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and the Acting MST Coordinator.