Often kept secret, military sexual trauma leaves lasting scars

Key Takeaways

  • Among former military members, approximately 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men have experienced military sexual assault (MST).
  • Survivors of MST often take years to heal from its effects on their mental health, which can include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other conditions.
  • Congress is considering new bills that would improve access to benefits and care for MST survivors.

UPDATE: Starting January 17, 2023, all US veterans are eligible for free emergency mental health care. This applies even if the individual is not enrolled in the VA system. The policy covers the cost of an ambulance ride, up to 30 days of inpatient care, and up to 90 days of outpatient care.

Some information in this article may be triggering for certain readers. If you are a victim of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to get confidential help from a trained staff member at your local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, visit our National Helpline Database.

“Doing Your Duty” is one of the top values ​​of the US ArmyThat’s exactly what Sandra Lee advocated weeks after she was raped twice by fellow soldiers while serving in Iraq in 2004. A staff sergeant and member of the Civil Affairs Unit, he was responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of schools for children in western Baghdad and providing security for a combat engineer unit.

“I didn’t have the mental capacity or time to deal with anything personal. At that point, it was about coming together and getting everyone home safely,” explains Lee, who survived four roadside bombings. “Everything that had to do with myself is just pushed out of the way – it doesn’t matter.”

However, Lee’s mental health began to spiral when he came home in October 2004. Praveen said he thought about suicide and felt angry and depressed. Lee eventually entered an in-patient treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for six months in 2007. It was then that she was able to admit the rapes and begin to heal from them.

But it would take another 10 years and lots of medication, therapy, support groups and other treatments before Lee would start to feel better.

Chronic scars from military sexual trauma

Lee’s experience as a survivor of military sexual assault (MST) is not uncommon. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men who have served in the military have experienced MST (defined as sexual assault or harassment during military service).

The effects of MST can profoundly affect a veteran’s mental health years after the event. It has been linked to an increased risk of PTSD, depression, substance use disorders and other mental illnesses.

One of the reasons MST has such a lasting impact on survivors is that, in many cases, the crime was committed by someone they lived and worked with.

Zachary Claiborne Dietrich, Psyd

Often there is an added layer to the event because the person who carried out the attack may be someone the victim can trust To save their lives.

— Zachary Claiborne Dietrich, Psyd

“There is often an added layer to the event because the person who carried out the attack may be someone the victim can trust To save their lives,” said Zachary Clayborne Dietrich, PsyD, a licensed psychologist at LifeStance Health, which provides virtual and in-person outpatient mental health care.

Dr. Dietrich, who enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 2003, continued: “In most survivors of sexual assault, you already see a decrease in their trust in others and hypervigilance. However, this is often magnified in the case of MST because the perpetrator should have been watching their back against danger, not exacerbating the danger.”

That interpersonal trauma can be a significant betrayal. As a result, survivors struggle to feel safe among others and often isolate themselves from support systems.

Survivors of MST also have higher rates of other types of injuries. They are more likely to endure sexual and physical abuse in childhood. 3 of 4 MST survivors were also exposed to other significant battlefield stressors (including combat) while deployed. And once they come home, they face a disproportionately high risk of sexual assault outside of military service. Together, these situations lead to cumulative trauma that can be extremely challenging to deal with and requires a lot of time to recover.

A culture of secrecy

Despite the prevalence of MST, approximately 70% of cases go unreported. Mainly because of fear, says Brittany Morris, MSc, a licensed clinical social worker at ThriveWorks in Chesapeake, Virginia, who previously worked with the military and lived overseas.

“There are concerns that there will be no consequences for the perpetrator, especially if they are a superior, that the survivor will be punished (forced to change posts), or that others will find them and avoid them,” she explains. . “Military members are often told to mask their feelings and hide areas of weakness, so I’ve seen many survivors blame themselves for being weak, they didn’t know any better, or somehow they ‘wanted it’.”

Brittany Morris, LCSW

Military members are often told to mask their feelings and hide areas of weakness, so I’ve seen many survivors blame themselves for being weak, not knowing any better, or somehow they were ‘asking for it.’

— Brittany Morris, LCSW

Also, reporting a rape or sexual assault can be its own source of potential trauma—a major reason why Lee didn’t tell anyone what happened to her at the time.

“Who’s to say I wasn’t lying, or making things up, or remembering things differently? There were days when I fantasized about suicide and had that idea, and I wondered what reporting (the rape) would do to my psyche,” Lee said. “If you’re already at that breaking point and just hanging on by a thread, and you add something else to the mix — that risk wasn’t something I wanted to take.”

The military’s culture of secrecy can leave survivors to endure the aftermath of sexual assault on their own, without the support and therapy that can help them cope with the resulting distress.

Improving care for MST survivors

When Lee tried to access additional support for recovery from the effects of MST after her hospitalization in 2007, she found that “there were no resources.”

Since then, advocates have been trying to make improvements for MST survivors. Senators recently reintroduced a bill to improve access to benefits and health care for MST survivors and enhance MST claims processing. Several bills focused on caring for MST survivors have also been introduced in the House of Representatives. One of those bills, if passed, would require the VA to designate a peer support specialist to help a veteran file an MST claim.

“I personally think it can benefit survivors significantly because it feels like others understand that you are playing an important role in the healing process,” says Dr. Dietrich.

Lee would eventually like to see the MST reporting system outside the military chain of command, which would make survivors feel more comfortable filing a report and increase the likelihood that it will be dealt with properly.

“This is the first step. There are commanders in the military who will go to bat for their soldiers and anyone mistreated, but there are others who don’t, who would rather sweep it under the rug because it would be a stain on their career,” he says.

In terms of recovery, what has helped Lee the most is developing a support system that includes allied health professionals, finding effective medications, and acting in theater, which allows her to engage with challenging emotions in a more comfortable way. Even 17 years later, he still has “bad days,” but is doing much better.

“It’s not just about the passing of time, but what you do with that time that helps you heal,” Lee says.

What does this mean for you?

Congress is considering new bills that would improve care for veterans who experienced military sexual assault (MST). Although often kept secret, MST is more common than you might think, affecting an estimated 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men who have served in the military.

MST can lead to serious mental health consequences, including PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders that last for years. If you or someone you know is a survivor of MST, you can get help through the VA, as well as through professional therapists.

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