Learning About Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma, or MST, is the term used by the VA to refer to experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that a veteran experienced during his or her military service.  The definition used by the VA comes from Federal law and is stated 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.”

More concretely, MST includes any sexual activity where a servicemember is involved against his or her will – he or she may have been pressured into sexual activities (for example, with threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied better treatment in exchange for sex), may have been unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated), or may have been physically forced into sexual activities.

Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing; threatening, offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities; and threatening and unwelcome sexual advances. The identity or characteristics of the perpetrator, whether the Servicemember was on or off duty at the time, and whether he or she was on or off base at the time do not matter. If these experiences occurred while an individual was on active duty or active duty for training, they are considered by VA to be MST.

National data from VA’s national screening program, in which every Veteran seen for health care is asked whether he or she experienced MST, reveal that about 1 in every 5 women and 1 in every 100 men respond “yes,” that they experienced MST, when screened by their VA provider. It’s important to keep in mind that these data speak only to the rate of MST among veterans who have chosen to seek VA health care; they cannot be used to make an estimate of the actual rates of sexual assault and harassment experiences among all individuals serving in the U.S. Military.

MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health condition, and as with other forms of trauma, there are a variety of reactions that Veterans can have in response to MST. The type, severity, and duration of a veteran’s difficulties will all vary based on factors like whether the veterans has had a prior history of trauma, the types of responses from others they received at the time of the MST, and whether the MST happened once or was repeated over time.  Race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other cultural variables can also affect the impact of MST.

Many individuals recover without professional help; others may generally function well in their life, but continue to experience some level of difficulties or have strong reactions in certain situations.  For some veterans, the experience of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health in significant ways, even many years later.  Some of the experiences both female and male survivors of MST may have include strong emotions such as depression and anger, feelings of numbness, trouble sleeping, difficulties with attention and concentration, problems with alcohol and drugs, difficulties in relationships, and physical health problems such as sexual difficulties and weight problems.  PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) is commonly associated with MST, but it should be noted that MST also leads to other things like depression and mood disorders.

The VA is strongly committed to ensuring that veterans have access to the help they need in order to recover from MST.  Every VA health care facility has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues.  Recognizing that many survivors of sexual trauma do not disclose their experiences unless asked directly, VA health care providers ask every veteran whether he or she experienced MST.

All treatment for physical and mental health conditions related to MST is provided free of charge, and veterans do not need to be service connected or have a disability rating to receive this free service.  To accommodate the veterans who do not feel comfortable in mixed-gender treatment settings, some facilities have separate programs for men and women.  For more information, veterans can speak with their existing VA health care providers.

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