Military Sexual Trauma: Stories from Survivors
Posted April 10, 2010
The Veterans Health Administration is working hard to spread the word about the services it has available for Veterans, women and men, who have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
“Military sexual trauma” is the term the Department of Veterans Affairs uses to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment that occurred while a veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.
Experiences of MST can affect Veterans’ mental and physical health even many years later and is associated with conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse. MST can also lead to physical health problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal difficulties, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue.
VA has state of the art treatments available to help MST survivors recover, however. John, who was raped while in Basic Training 39 years ago, swears by VA’s services, saying “the VA saved my life and I will always be grateful for their help.”
John did not tell anyone about his experiences of MST for almost four decades and instead “squashed down” the bad memories with drugs, alcohol and destructive behavior. “I just celebrated my 54th birthday and nobody in my family ever thought I would live to be 40.”
Finally, John decided to try to turn his life around and speak up. He called his local VA Medical Center in Perry Point, MD and asked to speak with the MST Coordinator.
“I was reluctant to talk at first but I knew I had to speak up,” John remembers. For a year and a half, John attended regular one-on-one treatment sessions with a therapist and went to classes on the impact of trauma, coping skills, and the process of recovery.
Newly sober, he also participated in a six-week stabilizing program to help prepare him to confront his memories. “At first I didn’t want to, but over time I’ve realized that by dealing with those memories, I’m not running away any more.”
It’s been a hard, long road, but John feels like a new man. He’s off drugs and alcohol now and has repaired relationships with family and friends whom he had pushed away over the years. Interested in returning to work, he’s currently participating in the Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program at Perry Point, receiving support and training in returning to a work environment.
He’s not done recovering by any means, but he’s on his way.
Glenda’s journey has been long as well. As a 21-year-old recruit, she was raped by her commanding officer while she was held down by the unit’s first sergeant.
Afterwards, the lieutenant said that if she told anyone, he would see that she received a dishonorable discharge and would report that she was “unsuitable for service.”
After her discharge, Glenda felt she could not go home to her family and began a bleak odyssey which led her to drugs, alcohol and prostitution. “I didn’t care. I was numb. I was homeless and almost suicidal.”
Some of her symptoms included fear of men, fear of crowds, and “paranoia about people behind me.”
Finally, on the advice of other Veterans she had met, Glenda came to the VA hospital in Bay Pines, FL. She was diagnosed with PTSD, one of the painful conditions that can result from Military Sexual Trauma.
It was not easy. Glenda remembers, “I went through their program a bunch of times. As part of a therapy called Prolonged Exposure, my therapist asked me if I wanted to record my experiences. She thought I should listen to them. I agreed even though I never got used to it. But I’m glad I did. It worked. They made me realize it was not my fault.”
With the support of other VA programs, including transitional housing, Glenda today has moved home, has a great relationship with her family and only has one semester to complete for her degree in social services which she plans to use “to help women Veterans who have been through what I went through.”
“The VA saved my life. Every time I go to the VA hospital, I go in just to talk to my therapist and tell her, again, thank you.”
Her advice for other Veterans: “Those secrets are not going to go away. Call the VA. They can help you live again.”
Susan McCutcheon, RN, EdD, Director of Family Services, Women’s Mental Health and Military Sexual Trauma within VA’s Mental Health Services says, “These experiences are difficult for people to talk about and reach out to others for support, so many times unless you ask, people end up suffering alone. Knowing this, we are working to create a climate where veterans can feel free to speak up and seek help for any problems they might be having related to their experiences of MST.”
Because of this, VA healthcare professionals routinely include questions about MST when conducting clinical interviews with all Veterans. Every facility also has an MST Coordinator who serves as a point person for issues related to MST.
“It’s most important for Veterans to know that all counseling and treatment for mental and physical health conditions related to MST is provided free of charge,” McCutcheon says. Veterans do not need to be service connected or have a VA disability rating and may be able to receive this benefit even if they are not eligible for other VA care. Also, they do not need to have reported the incident when it happened or have other documentation that it occurred.
Every VA facility has providers knowledgeable about treatment for the aftereffects of MST. Many have specialized outpatient mental health services focusing on sexual trauma and there are well over a dozen residential and inpatient programs available for Veterans requiring more intensive specialized MST-related care. Vet Centers also have specially trained sexual trauma counselors.
McCutcheon continues, “Many people assume that VA only has services for combat survivors, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Assisting MST survivors in their recovery is something that VA cares very deeply about and we are constantly working to improve our ability to meet their unique treatment needs.”
Veterans interested in learning more can speak with their existing VA healthcare provider, contact the MST Coordinator at their local VA facility, or contact their local Vet Center. Veterans should feel free to ask to meet with a clinician of a particular sex if it would make them feel more comfortable.
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