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April 2015 Feature Article

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Honoring Veterans’ Voices, Helping MST Survivors to Heal

Posted April 01, 2015

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)–an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and to educate communities and individuals about how to prevent sexual violence. This year, VA adopted a theme for its SAAM activities entitled, “Honoring Veterans’ Voices, Helping Military Sexual Trauma Survivors to Heal.” This theme is particularly relevant given the current emphasis in VA on Veteran-centric care and on attending to Veterans’ experiences with VA. One of VA’s Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Coordinators, Dr. Rebecca Jump (Augusta, GA), explains how this theme is relevant for her work: “I think the majority of therapists who work with MST survivors spend our days nurturing the voices hidden behind and below the hurt, fear, shame, blame, doubt and guilt. Honoring the voice sometimes starts before the voice is truly heard - by demonstrating the caring and commitment that helps build trust and comfort. It involves demonstrating to the individual, through respect, patience and acceptance, that his or her voice is worthy of being heard. It is about celebrating and validating the voice that dares to speak after years or decades of silence. The voice represents our strength and our fragility as humans and this balance is essential for growth.”

SAAM posterMST is the term used by VA to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment experienced during military service. About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men seen for VA health care report a history of MST when they are asked about this by their VA provider. Although the percentage among women is much higher, given the far greater number of men in military service, there are significant numbers of both men and women who have experienced MST. In fact, over 40% of the Veterans seen in VA who disclose MST are men.

In VA, Veterans who experienced MST have access to a wide range of services and care with providers who are knowledgeable about treatment for the aftereffects of MST. In addition, every VA healthcare system has an MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues at the facility and can help Veterans access relevant VA services and programs. All treatment for physical and mental health conditions related to experiences of MST is provided free of charge and is unlimited in duration. Veterans may be eligible for free MST-related care even if they are not eligible for other VA services, and service connection (VA disability compensation) is not required. No documentation of MST experiences is required. VA also engages in a range of outreach activities, ongoing staff education, and monitoring of MST-related screening and treatment, in order to ensure that adequate services are available.

VA staff across the country make special efforts during SAAM to show support for Veterans who experienced MST. Madeleine Karpel, LCSW, an MST Coordinator at the Bedford (MA) VAMC says “The goal of this year’s theme, “Honoring Veteran’s Voices,” is to raise a chorus of voices in support of Veterans who experienced MST – both those who have already found their own voices in coming forward, and those who are still finding the safety and readiness to do so. If in raising awareness and demonstrating our resources and support we can help one more individual find their own voice, then we will have succeeded.”

For more information, Veterans can speak with a VA health care provider, contact the MST Coordinator at their nearest VA medical center, or contact their local Vet Center. A list of VA and Vet Center facilities can be found at http://www.va.gov and www.vetcenter.va.gov. Veterans can also learn more about VA’s MST-related services online at http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/msthome.asp and see video clips with stories of recovery from Veterans who experienced MST at http://maketheconnection.net/conditions/military-sexual-trauma. VA staff can also find information on the VA intranet at http://vaww.mst.va.gov.

Trauma Team