Sexual trauma is still, in 2018, stigmatized. Often times, victims of sexual trauma suffer re-victimization if they report the trauma, they also experience victim blaming, and loss of career, dishonorable discharge, ineligibility for benefits, and loss of their core group of peers. There are the real consequences to reporting a sexual assault, and, neither the military nor society is helping to make it any easier for the victims.
MST, by definition, is different from sexual assault. MST, military sexual trauma, includes any sexual activity against one’s will and any repeated acts of sexual harassment. Against one’s will includes being pressured or coerced into sexual activity, unable to give consent (such as if they are under the influence), or if they are forced into sexual activity. Harassment includes unwanted touching or grabbing, threatening or offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities, or unwelcome sexual advances.
A study done in 2015, by the University of Southern California and published by the American Psychological Association, identified that approximately 40% of the female veterans sampled (sample = 2,583 veterans in Southern California) experienced sexual trauma while they were active duty. Of the entire sample, 35% of the females met the clinical definition for PTSD. Within that 35%, 76% of those admitted to some form of sexual trauma during their active duty service.
PTSD due to MST
Eligible veterans who experienced sexual trauma and are diagnosed with PTSD are eligible for benefits through the VA. Being a victim of MST alone is not a compensable condition. Victims often believe that they will get better and that their PTSD is just temporary. This is a very misunderstood concept. PTSD is a permanent condition. Veterans with PTSD have many options to treat their PTSD and minimize its effects and learn how to cope with it, but PTSD does not go away, it is a chronic, lifelong condition that needs treatment or it will get worse. The longer it goes untreated, the worse the condition can become.
Unfortunately, veterans with PTSD who do not seek treatment, like their civilian counterparts, often end up self-medicating. Alcohol and substance use disorders are prevalent among those who have mental health disorders, even more so among those who have experienced trauma-related disorders. Victims self-medicate to relieve nightmares, anxiety, panic, and to help them relax or sleep.
Mental health conditions left untreated are precursors to activities that can lead veterans into involvement with the criminal justice system. Right now, about 8% of all people in jail or prison are veterans. Approximately 85% of incarcerated veterans are suffering from a mental health condition that was probably either untreated or undertreated.
Suicide is highest among veteran who have PTSD and are untreated. Approximately 21 veterans a day commit suicide because they are not being treated for their mental health conditions and cannot cope anymore. Treatment sometimes can be nothing more than helping a veteran find a sense of hope and belonging, feeling that they are not alone anymore. There are countless groups where veterans who have experienced a variety of traumas, including MST, gather to share their survival stories and encourage each other to push forward and not let the trauma win.
How does a veteran prove MST occurred?
The VA recently published a list of “markers” used to determine if a sexual trauma had occurred when there was no actual report or evidence. This list includes behavioral changes such as substance abuse, depression, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, STDs, requests for transfer, worsening work performance, increased disciplinary actions, etc.
Veterans can use lay evidence, statements of others who observed their behaviors, to verify that a trauma occurred. Performance reports showing a decrease in work performance are markers, but also seeing a veteran who threw himself into his work and showed a major increase in work performance could be a marker as well. Becoming a work-a-holic could be a sign of trauma occurring at home or a need to prove that “nothing is wrong” or “they can’t beat me.”
Any other changes in behavior can be used as evidence of trauma, provided it coincides with the event. Unfortunately, trauma victims rarely get dates right but, fortunately, just about every person who deals with trauma cases is aware of that, so if the dates are off, that will be okay, as long as they are close.
The military response to reporting MST still not great…..
The military is trying to get better about responding to reports of MST. However, they are still in their infancy when it comes to dealing with victims of sexual trauma. After reporting, male and female MST victims are still reporting that they are being discharged due to personality disorder or misconduct. While this practice in the military declined sharply in 2010 when the rules regarding discharges were revised, it is still being practiced at an alarming rate; often enough that the Human Rights Watch has filed a report concerning the practice. A “personality disorder” or “due to misconduct” discharge is a serious barrier to future employment and VA benefits. Victims are often unaware of the consequences of these types of discharges and are just willing to do anything to get out of the environment they have been so victimized that they accept these discharges without question. While these discharges can be appealed, only about 1% ever gets reversed.
Veterans who experience MST need to protect themselves from the potential loss of benefits and loss of future entitlements by documenting as much as possible, going to a civilian facility for assistance, and getting counseling if they experience any mental health symptoms. Getting a mental health diagnosis prior to exiting the military is the safest way to ensure future service connection, but using any of the tips in this and our other blogs can help Veterans protect themselves from a bleak future that could possibly lead to homelessness, substance abuse, and even prison.