In the Spotlight
Don't Suffer in Silence: VA Offers Help for Military Sexual Trauma (MST)
It took two long years, but Air National Guard Veteran Jennifer Norris finally found the courage and support she needed to report she had been raped by her recruiter and sexually assaulted by three other superiors and fellow Servicemembers while on active duty.
"One of my superiors said my performance went from excellent to 'I don't give a darn anymore," said Norris. "He was concerned and wondered what was going on, so he asked me." Norris, who by that time had reached her "breaking point," came clean about what had happened. That was the beginning of her journey toward healing.
Both women and men experience military sexual trauma (MST). MST is the term the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) uses to refer to sexual assault or sexual harassment that occurred while the Veteran was in the military. MST can have a long-term impact on a survivor's mental and physical health, with common aftereffects including anger, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. The trauma may also affect relationships with family, friends and coworkers, as well as work attendance and performance.
"PTSD is the most common diagnosis related to MST among both male and female Veterans, but survivors have a wide variety of responses," said Dr. Ashley Niehaus, a member of the VA's national MST Support Team, funded by the VA's Office of Mental Health Services.
About one in five women and 1 in 100 men have told their VA health care provider that they experienced sexual trauma in the military, according to VA.
Norris, who developed a problem with alcohol, first turned to a private therapist for help. But when, by chance, she found a card with a VA MST counselor's name and contact information on it, she called. "I didn't know there were VA resources available to me," said Norris. "It was like a lifeline."
Though her private therapist helped her address her drinking problem, she was unfamiliar with the military, according to Norris. "The VA totally understood how the military works - that was huge. By stepping into the VA, I stepped into my own world. The VA educated me about PTSD and the triggers and told me what I was going through was a common response to MST. They validated me and helped me talk about it."
"It's important that VA be a place where Veterans feel comfortable discussing their experiences of MST with providers," said Dr. Margret Bell, acting Director for Education and Training with VA's national MST Support Team. To ensure this happens, VA provides its clinical staff with in-depth training about the impact of MST. It has also established policies that all Veterans seen for health care services must be asked if they experienced MST so they can be informed of the specialized services VA has available.
In addition to seeing a VA MST counselor for outpatient treatment, Norris attended a six-week, inpatient VA PTSD program. She also started a blog, "Justice for MST Survivors," and joined a VA writers' group led by a VA facilitator. The group, which meets every two weeks, includes mostly Veterans coping with PTSD. "We're going to turn our stories into theater productions, which will premiere on Veteran's Day," said Norris.
Writing also helps Army Veteran Rowdy Grigsby, who composes "PTSD poetry." After a long road to recovery that included a stay in a VA transitional program for the homeless, Grigsby - who also suffered from MST and PTSD - said his life has changed "100 percent."
Both Grigsby and Norris described reaching a "breaking" or "tipping" point before seeking help. Seeking treatment earlier can prevent prolonged suffering and problems such as homelessness, unemployment and broken relationships. "You have to reach that point where you have to surrender to the idea that you need help," said Grigsby. "It's hard because we're soldiers, and we're taught not to give up."
If you are a Veteran and have MST, here are some things you should know:
- All VA treatment for physical and mental health conditions related to MST is free
- Veterans do not need to be service connected (have a VA disability rating) to have reported the abuse at the time it occurred or to have other proof of MST in order to receive free care for MST-related conditions
- There are no time limits for being eligible for free, MST-related care, which means Veterans can seek treatment even many years after discharge
- Veterans may be eligible for free, MST-related care even if they are not eligible for other VA services
- Every VA health care facility has an MST coordinator who can answer any questions you might have about VA's MST-related services and help you access VA programs
- Every VA health care facility has providers knowledgeable about treatment for problems related to MST. Many facilities have specialized outpatient mental health services focusing on sexual trauma. VA Centers also have specially trained sexual trauma counselors
- VA has almost two dozen programs nationwide that offer specialized MST treatment in a residential or inpatient setting. These programs are for Veterans who need more intense treatment and support. Because some Veterans do not feel comfortable in mixed-gender treatment settings, some facilities have separate programs for men and women. All residential and inpatient MST programs have separate sleeping areas for men and women
My HealtheVet has screening tools to help you determine whether you could have a problem with some of the conditions that could develop after experiencing MST, such as depression, PTSD and alcohol and substance abuse. If you want to speak with someone at the VA about MST or any of these issues, contact your local VA Medical Center or VA health care provider.
"It's important for Veterans to know that there's hope - recovery is possible - and that VA can help," said Niehaus.
National Center for PTSDVA Office of Mental Health Services
More information about MST from VA
Mental health information for VeteransMake the Connection
Overview of MST and Veteran testimonial video
Updated/Reviewed: September 17, 2012