Unfortunately sexual assaults do occur in the military, and unfortunately it’s nothing new. Sexual assaults have been occurring in the military for many years, and affects both women AND men. The VA refers to these assaults as military sexual traumas (MST). MST is part of a broader category of claims referred to as “PTSD based on in-service personal trauma.” The VA defines personal trauma as “stressor events involving harm perpetrated by a person who is not considered part of an enemy force.” MST is considered a personal trauma and is specifically defined as “psychological trauma resulting 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, active duty for training, or inactive duty training.”
How Veterans Can be Affected by MST
MST is not a medical diagnosis. It is a traumatic event/experience and there are multiple reactions that veterans might have in response. PTSD is the diagnosis most commonly associated with MST, but other diagnoses that are related to MST include depression, mood disorders, and substance abuse disorders. Also, not everyone will experience the same reactions. There are many different factors that can affect how each person reacts to an MST. Examples of these different factors include whether the MST was a single event or occurred multiple times, whether the victim had prior trauma experiences, and whether the perpetrator was one person versus multiple people. Some of the common responses that result from an MST include the following:
- Feeling depression
- Feeling angry or irritable all of the time
- Having intense and sudden reactions to things
- Feeling emotionally “flat” or “numb” or having difficulty feeling emotions like love or happiness
- Sleeping difficulties such as trouble falling or staying asleep, and nightmares
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
- Trouble remembering things
- Developing a drug or alcohol problem
- Difficulty feeling safe, always feeling on edge
- Difficulty maintaining relationships or finding healthy relationships
- Trouble with employers or authority figures
- Physical problems such as sexual difficulties, chronic pain, weight problems, eating disorders, or gastrointestinal problems
Claims Based on Military Sexual Trauma
If you were a victim of MST while in the military, and you are currently diagnosed with a health condition that resulted from the sexual assault, then you are entitled to receive VA compensation. Remember, you cannot receive benefits based solely on the basis of MST. You must also have a compensable health condition. For example, PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, or substance abuse. The following is needed in order to present a well-prepared VA MST claim to the VA:
- A completed VA Form 526. The current version as of today can be found here.
- A current diagnosis of a mental health condition or a physical condition from your doctor.
- A nexus letter connecting your current diagnosis to the sexual trauma that occurred during your active duty military service.
- Evidence supporting your claim
The VA has less strict requirements for the standard of evidence in claims based on MST as compared to other disability claims. It’s common that a veteran’s service records don’t make any kind of reference to a sexual assault. There are many reasons why sexual assaults are not reported including: fear of harm or retribution, embarrassment, worry about reputation, lack of knowledge, fear of negative consequences on military career, fear of being blamed, and fear of not being believed, among numerous other things. This is why claims based on MST are treated differently from other VA disability claims. Claims based on MST have different rules when it comes to what evidence can be used for support. Evidence from sources other than the veteran’s service records can be used to corroborate the veteran’s own account of the incident. Examples of evidence from other sources include:
- Evidence of the Incident
- Records from law enforcement authorities, rape crisis centers, mental health counseling centers, hospitals, or physicians
- Pregnancy tests or tests for sexually transmitted diseases
- Statements from family members, roommates, fellow service members, or clergy
- Evidence of behavioral changes
- Documentation of a transfer request
- Evidence of a drug or alcohol problem
- Changes in job performances
- Marital and/or sexual difficulties
- Incidents of depression or anxiety for which no other cause has been identified.
Overall, it is important to gather evidence that shows how you were different after the assault. It can be traumatic to bring up the incident of MST all over again, but it’s very important to provide as much detail as possible in order to have the strongest evidence for your claim. Also, when direct evidence of an MST is not available in a case, the VA may request a medical opinion to help determine whether the veteran’s symptoms are related to the MST.