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Military Sexual Trauma: Help is Available

Last year, the Air Force was embroiled in a scandal centering on rape allegations at the basic training facility at Lackland Air Force Base, part of Joint Base San Antonio. At least one instructor, Luis Walker, was convicted of 28 separate UCMJ counts arising from the raping female trainee, and sexually abusing as many as nine others. Follow-up investigations ensnared twelve instructors accused of sexually victimizing 31 female trainees.

A recent report recommended that military commanders do more to prevent rape and sexual assault in the ranks.

Lackland was just one military facility among hundreds. A recent documentary, The Invisible War, takes a hard look at the problem of sexual harassment, assault and rape within the ranks of the military. The Defense Department estimates that as many as 19,000 servicemembers may have been sexually assaulted in 2010, according to reporting by NPR (Do read the excellent comments by JRSCline at the link, though).

I don’t believe that there is a ‘rape culture’ within the military – no unit I’ve ever been in would tolerate it or knowingly look the other way while it happened. Knowing the military, I believe there is a danger of military officials identifying 500 of the last five actual sexual predators. However, there is no denying that rape or sexual assault does in fact, occur, and if it happens once, it’s too common.

As the military considers what measures they can take to prevent future assaults, here is a brief overview of the resources available to help military members and veterans who have been victimized by sexual predators, and can use some help.

Have you just been raped or assaulted?

Read this first! Understanding the process can help safeguard potential evidence and preserve your options and the options of law enforcement in prosecuting a crime.

Military Sexual Trauma vs. PTSD

According to U.S. Code 1720D of Title 38, military sexual trauma is defined as “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." Sexual harassment is further defined as "repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character." Military sexual trauma is therefore an event, as opposed to a psychological condition. However, the fallout from MST can lead to a number of psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and so forth.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men respond ‘yes’ when screened via questionnaires for possible military sexual trauma.

Note that while women are nearly 5 times more likely to self-report some personal affliction with military sexual trauma, they only represent about one fifth of the military. The net result is that there are nearly as many men coming to the VA with MST as there are women.

Are You Suffering Because of MST?

You may need help dealing with MST if you have been sexually assaulted, raped or otherwise sexually traumatized during your military service, and you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms or characteristics:

  • Depression
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling a lack of self-worth
  • Eating disorders
  • Performance decline at work
  • Forgetfulness and preoccupation
  • Nightmares and sleep terrors
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety about falling asleep
  • An urge to self-harm
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal wishes or thoughts
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Hypersexuality – numbing the pain through irresponsible sexual behavior

The good news is that many of these conditions – if rooted in MST or PTSD - respond effectively to treatment. The medical and mental health fields are getting much more sophisticated in their understanding of the physiological and psychological reactions to stress than they were just a few years ago. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications are getting more effective, with fewer side effects, for example. Furthermore, there are some emerging treatments for various forms of PTSD showing signs of promise.

For many individuals, simply knowing that they aren’t dealing with the problem alone – and that their reactions to it and the symptoms they experience are quite common and normal responses to terrible stressors - can be a great load off of their minds.

The symptoms of military sexual trauma and other stressors that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (now increasingly referred to as “syndrome” rather than “disorder”) overlap a great deal. For example, anxiety, distrust of others, discomfort in crowds, agoraphobia, and self-medication or numbing with alcohol and drugs are common reactions to both kinds of stressors. However, there are some differences in treatment, which the VA recognizes.

For example, it is very common for women veterans to feel uncomfortable going through a more generalized PTSD course of treatment, including group therapy, with mixed-gender groups who may be there as a result of very different traumas, such as combat experiences. They may not feel the same bonds with their male peers as combat veterans do with one another.

Many VA facilities therefore offer a separate, women-only program specifically designed for those dealing with military sexual trauma.

Some other things you should know:

  • All VA treatment for anything related to military sexual trauma is free.
  • You don’t have to have a disability rating.
  • There’s no ‘statute of limitations.’ If you’re a veteran, you can get treatment for MST at the VA no matter how many years have elapsed since the traumatizing event.
  • Every VA facility has an MST coordinator, who can advise you, confidentially and in private, about the programs available to you.
  • All VA centers have counselors who are specially trained in assisting veterans with MST.
  • Both outpatient and inpatient programs are available.
  • You are encouraged to ask for a female counselor, or a male counselor, if you prefer.

The Safe Helpline

Want to talk to someone now? The Safe Helpline is the online portal for anyone in the DoD community – military, civilian or dependent – who needs help, support or advice about anything having to do with sexual assault or trauma. You can get confidential, one-to-one help, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, by calling 1-877-995-5247.

If you prefer to work outside of the VA or the military health care system, you can also contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network hotline. However, RAINN operates both help lines.

Contributed by Jason Van Steenwky

This article has been edited to specify that the rapes and sexual assaults happened at Lackland AFB, which is part of Joint Base San Antonio, and to clarify the difference between MST, a stressor or event, rather than a diagnosis, and clinical diagnoses such as PTSD. The author wishes to thank Miette Wells Ph.D., author of Military Sexual Trauma, for her time and her assistance with this piece.

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