Military Sexual Trauma - PTSD: National Center for PTSD
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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Military Sexual Trauma

 
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Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST) refers to sexual assault or sexual harassment that happens during military service. MST happens to men and women. Learn how MST can affect Veterans and VA resources available to help.

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MST is the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to refer to experiences of sexual assault or sexual harassment that a Veteran experienced during their military service. VA is strongly committed to ensuring that Veterans have access to the help they need in order to recover from MST.

“Therapy really helped me understand that it really wasn't my fault." ”

Laura Hendrixon

U.S. Marine Corps
2003-2007

What Is MST?

MST includes any sexual activity during military service where a Veteran was involved against their will. They 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)
  • Unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated or asleep)
  • Physically forced into sexual activities

Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include:

  • Unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, including during "hazing" experiences
  • Offensive remarks about a person's body or sexual activities that they found threatening
  • Unwelcome sexual advances that a person found threatening

The identity or characteristics of the perpetrator, whether a Veteran was on or off duty at the time, and whether they were on or off base at the time do not matter.

How Common Is MST?

VA's national screening program, in which every Veteran seen for health care is asked whether they experienced MST, provides data on how common MST is among Veterans seen in VA.

National data from this program reveal that about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men respond "yes," that they experienced MST, when screened by their VA provider. Although rates of MST are higher among women, because there are many more men than women in the military, there are actually significant numbers of women and men seen in VA who have experienced MST. In fact, over 1 of every 3 Veterans who tell a provider they experienced MST are men.

It is 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.

How Can MST Affect Veterans?

Like other forms of trauma, MST can be a life-changing event. However, people are often remarkably resilient after experiencing MST. MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health condition, and there are a variety of reactions that Veterans can have in response to MST. Many individuals recover without professional help. Others may generally function well in their lives 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.

The type, severity and duration of a Veteran's difficulties will vary based on factors like:

  • Whether they have experienced other traumatic events
  • Whether the MST happened once or was repeated over time
  • The types of responses they received from others at the time of the MST

Gender, race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and other cultural variables can also affect the impact of MST. Although every Veteran's reaction following MST is unique, many Veterans may struggle with similar issues. Some of the experiences many survivors of MST may have at some point include:

  • Strong emotions: having intense, sudden emotional responses to things; feeling angry or irritable all the time; feeling depressed
  • Feelings of numbness: feeling emotionally "flat"; difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness
  • Trouble sleeping: trouble falling or staying asleep; disturbing nightmares
  • Difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory: trouble staying focused; frequently finding their mind wandering; having a hard time remembering things
  • Problems with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily; getting intoxicated or "high" to cope with memories or emotional reactions; drinking to fall asleep
  • Difficulty with things that remind them of their experiences of sexual trauma: feeling on edge or "jumpy" all the time; difficulty feeling safe; going out of their way to avoid reminders of their experiences
  • Difficulties with relationships: feeling isolated or disconnected from others; difficulty trusting others; trouble with employers or authority figures; abusive relationships; difficulties with intimacy or sex
  • Physical health problems: chronic pain; weight or eating problems; gastrointestinal problems

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common mental health diagnoses among MST survivors. Other mental health diagnoses that are frequently related to MST include depression and other mood disorders and substance use disorders. MST has also been found to be associated with a variety of physical health conditions.

Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma, and VA has effective services to help Veterans do this.

What MST-Related Services Does VA Offer?

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. This person can help Veterans find and access VA services and programs.
  • Recognizing that many survivors of sexual trauma do not disclose their experiences unless asked directly, VA health care providers ask every Veteran whether they experienced MST. This is an important way of making sure Veterans know about the services available to them.
  • All treatment for physical and mental health conditions related to experiences of MST is provided free of charge.
  • Veterans do not need to be service connected (or have a VA disability rating). Veterans do not need to have reported the incident(s) at the time or have other documentation that they occurred to get care.
  • Veterans may be able to receive this care even if they are not eligible for other VA care.
  • MST-related services are available at every VA medical center and many VA community-based outpatient clinics.
  • MST-related outpatient counseling is also available through VA's community-based Vet Centers.
  • MST-related services are designed to meet Veterans where they are at in their recovery, whether that is focusing on strategies for coping with challenging emotions and memories or, for Veterans who are ready, discussing the impacts of their MST experiences in more detail with a trusted provider. Veterans can ask to meet with a clinician of a particular gender if it would help them feel more comfortable.
  • For Veterans needing more intensive treatment and support, VA also provides MST-related mental health treatment in residential or inpatient settings.

For self-care, you can also download Beyond MST, a free mobile app that was created for survivors of MST to cope with MST-related challenges and improve health, relationships and quality of life.

Visit VA's MST website to learn more about VA's MST-related services.

How Can Veterans Get Help?

For more information, Veterans can:

  • Speak with their existing VA health care provider.
  • Contact the MST Coordinator at their nearest VA Medical Center.
  • Contact their local Vet Center.
  • Contact the Veteran's Crisis Line if they are in a crisis or need immediate assistance. Call 988 and press 1, or visit www.veteranscrisisline.netLink will take you outside the VA website. VA is not responsible for the content of the linked site. to reach caring, qualified responders trained to help Veterans. Many of them are Veterans themselves.

Although this page refers to Veterans, most former Service members with an Other Than Honorable or uncharacterized (entry-level) discharge can also receive MST-related care. Former National Guard and Reserves members with federal active duty service or a service-connected disability who were discharged under honorable conditions or with an Other Than Honorable discharge are also eligible; the service-connected disability does not need to be related to your experiences of MST. Current Service members can receive services related to MST, although for some types of services, a Department of Defense referral may be required. For more information, contact your local VA medical center and ask to speak with the MST Coordinator.

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PTSD Information Voice Mail: (802) 296-6300
Email: ncptsd@va.gov
Also see: VA Mental Health