What is military sexual trauma (MST)?
Military sexual trauma (MST) is the term VA uses to refer to sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service. Veterans of all types of backgrounds have experienced MST, including those of all gender identities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, ages, and branches and eras of service.
MST includes any sexual activity in which you were involved against your will. You may have been physically forced into sexual activities. In other cases, no physical force may have been used, but you were coerced or pressured into sexual activities. For example, you may have been threatened with negative consequences for refusing to cooperate. Or it may have been suggested that you would get faster promotions or better treatment in exchange for sex. These are all examples of MST.
Military sexual trauma also includes sexual activity that happened when you were not able to consent to it, such as if you were asleep or intoxicated. Other MST experiences include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, unwanted sexual advances that you found threatening, or unwanted comments about your body or your sexual activities that you found threatening. If these experiences occurred while you were in the military, they are considered to be MST.
“I remember the faces, the words, the smells, the negative, the unwarranted, unsolicited touches. I remember all of that. And I have friends who also are Veterans and went through worse than I did.”
It’s important to know that MST can occur on or off base, during war or peacetime, and while a Service member is on or off duty. Perpetrators can be men or women, military personnel or civilians, superiors or subordinates in the chain of command, strangers, friends, or intimate partners.
If you experienced MST, you are not alone. People don’t often talk about sexual assault or sexual harassment, and survivors may think they’re the only ones to have experienced it. However, data from VA’s universal screening program shows that about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men respond “yes” when asked by a VA health care provider if they experienced MST. This means that there are significant numbers of both men and women who have experienced MST.
Some people who have experienced military sexual assault or harassment may blame themselves or feel ashamed. It is important to remember that MST is never your fault. Nothing ever justifies someone harassing or assaulting you.
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How can MST affect someone?
Military sexual trauma is an experience, not a diagnosis or a condition, and people react in a wide variety of ways to MST. Some people may recover from MST without significant long-term challenges. For others, problems may not surface until months or years after the MST, and sometimes not until after they have left military service. Some people find that MST continues to affect their mental and physical health, work, relationships, and everyday life, even many years later. Your reaction may depend on factors like:
- Whether you experienced other traumas or stressful life events.
- How others responded at the time of the experience.
- Whether an MST experience was a single event or was repeated.
Some of the difficulties survivors of MST may experience include:
- Strong emotions, such as feeling depressed, having intense, sudden emotional responses to things, or feeling angry or irritable.
- Feeling numb or emotionally “flat,” or having difficulty feeling positive emotions like love or happiness.
- Trouble sleeping or having bad dreams.
- Trouble with attention, concentration, or memory.
- Using alcohol or other drugs to numb or escape from negative feelings.
- Difficulties with reminders of the MST experience.
- Feeling on edge or “jumpy” or not feeling safe.
- Going out of your way to avoid reminders of the trauma.
- Self-doubt, self-blame, or low self-esteem.
- Questioning important aspects of yourself like your gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Problems in relationships, trouble trusting others, or feeling alone or not connected to others.
- Trouble with employers or authority figures, or difficulty keeping a job.
- Physical health problems like chronic pain, weight or eating problems, or stomach or bowel problems.
- Difficulties with arousal, enjoyment, performance, or pain during sex, or avoiding intimacy.
- Self-harm or unsafe behaviors like thoughts of suicide, cutting, risk-taking, or aggression.
Your background can also shape how MST is experienced, its impact, and your recovery. Some MST survivors experience discrimination related to race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation during or after MST. These experiences can worsen the impact of the MST. Recovery can also be impacted by stigma. For example, male survivors may be especially likely to tell no one and “go it alone” after MST due to fears of being judged.
Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma, and VA has services to help MST survivors move forward in their lives.
Why can MST be so harmful?
Experiencing MST can be different from experiencing other traumas in some ways, including even sexual trauma in the civilian world.
“Going through a sexual assault is bad enough. Then to have this happen to me in my job as a soldier; it was really difficult because what happened to the unit support? Your fellow soldiers are supposed to have your back.”
Some aspects of the experience of MST that can contribute to this impact include:
- Having had to continue to live and work with the perpetrator(s), and even rely on them for essential things like food, health care, or “watching your back.”
- Worrying about damaging the bonds in your unit if you spoke out about what happened.
- Living far away from your family, friends, or other sources of support.
- Worrying about being seen as weak or vulnerable, or believing that others would not respect you or even blame you if you told anyone.
- Thinking that if others found out, it would hurt your career or your chances for promotion.
For these and other reasons, the experience of MST can leave survivors feeling alone, with few options to cope, and with a lot of strong emotions.
What should I know about treatment and VA services?
Although MST can be a very difficult experience, recovery is possible, and it's never too late to move forward. VA offers free, confidential treatment for mental and physical health conditions related to MST. You may be able to receive this MST-related care even if you are not eligible for other VA services. You do not need a VA service-connected disability rating. You also don't need to have reported the incident when it happened or have documentation that it occurred to get this care.
VA has effective services to support many paths to healing from the impact of MST. Services are recovery-oriented and tailored to your needs. Treatment may involve addressing immediate health and safety concerns, learning more about how MST affects people, focusing on strategies for coping with challenging emotions, or, for individuals who are ready, talking more about memories of the MST experience(s).
VA believes in MST survivors and stands ready to help in their recovery. Every VA health care facility has an MST Coordinator who can answer any questions you might have or help you access services.
- All VA health care facilities and many VA community-based outpatient clinics have providers who are knowledgeable about treatment for difficulties related to MST.
- VA’s community-based Vet Centers also offer MST-related counseling.
- Evidence-based treatments are widely available.
- VA offers treatment in residential or inpatient settings for individuals who need more intense treatment and support.
- You can ask to meet with a clinician of a particular gender if it would help you feel more comfortable.
Note: Although this page refers to Veterans, most former Service members with an other than honorable discharge or uncharacterized (entry-level) discharge are also eligible to receive MST-related care. Former National Guard and Reserve 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 may also receive services related to MST, although for some types of services, a Department of Defense referral may be required. For more information, please contact your local VA medical center and ask to speak to the MST Coordinator.
What can I do to help cope with my reactions to my experiences of MST?
If you’re having difficulties related to your experiences of MST, there are many things you can do.
First, you can download VA’s free self-help mobile app, Beyond MST, to support your health and well-being. This secure and private app has over 30 specialized tools and other features to help MST survivors cope with challenges, manage symptoms, improve their quality of life, and find hope. You do not need to create an account or be in treatment to use the app. No personal information entered in the app is shared with anyone, including VA.
You can also consider seeking support from a VA health care provider or talking to your local VA facility’s MST Coordinator.
In addition, there are some things you may be able to do on your own to heal and recover after MST. Some changes that can have a positive impact on your overall well-being include:
- Practice self-care, like eating healthy, exercising, and getting sleep as much as your life allows you to do so.
- Talk to a health care provider about any health concerns you notice.
- Try to avoid risky behaviors, including misusing alcohol or other drugs or overusing prescription medications to numb or escape from your feelings, and talk to a provider or a support group if you or others are concerned about your substance use.
- Keep a record to help identify situations that might trigger or worsen your symptoms.
- Consider trying a new hobby or a recreational activity that may fill your time in a healthy and enjoyable way.
- If you feel comfortable and safe, talk to family members and friends about what you are experiencing. This can help keep you from feeling isolated and give loved ones a chance to provide support.
- Try techniques that may reduce stress, such as breathing exercises, meditation, or prayer.
“You can find the plan and techniques that work for you. What worked for me may not work for you but I can tell you I found the steps that led to my recovery: going to VA, asking about their options, talking to somebody about my MST and PTSD, going to their classes, attending their groups.”
Take the next step to connect with care.
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New to VA? Apply for health care benefits.
- Getting started is simple. Create a free account online to help ease your enrollment process. To prepare to apply for VA health care in person, by telephone, or by mail, explore VA’s “How to Apply” page.
- Not sure whether you are eligible for VA health care benefits? Read about eligibility for VA health care.
- Unsure of what kind of help you need? Call 1-877-222-VETS (1-877-222-8387) to find the right resources to meet your needs, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET. If you have hearing loss, call TTY: 1-800-877-8339.
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Already enrolled in VA and interested in mental health support? Schedule a mental health appointment.
- If you’re already enrolled and using VA health care, the fastest way to schedule VA appointments is to call the VA facility where you want to receive care.
- With VA Appointments tools, you can schedule some VA health care appointments online, view details about upcoming appointments, and organize your health care calendar.
- If you’re not using VA medical services, contact your nearest VA medical center or Vet Center to talk about your needs.
What about other options at VA? VA offers a variety of tools and resources.
- The Veteran Training online self-help portal for overcoming everyday challenges includes modules on managing anger, developing parenting and problem-solving skills, and more.
- Mental health apps for Veterans cover a variety of topics, ranging from PTSD to anger management to quitting smoking.
- VA TeleMental Health connects you with a VA mental health provider through a computer or mobile device in your home or at your nearest VA health facility. You can learn more about this option from your local VA medical center.
- Vet Centers provide support, counseling, and readjustment services for Veterans and active duty service members (including members of the National Guard and Reserve) who have served on active military duty in any combat theater or area of hostility or have experienced a military sexual trauma. Find a Vet Center near you or call 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387) to talk with a fellow combat Veteran about your experiences, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
What about support beyond VA?
There’s a whole community of support ready to help with whatever you’re going through. Use this tool to find resources near you.