What is military sexual trauma (MST)?
During their service, both female and male Service members sometimes have upsetting, unwanted sexual experiences, including sexual assault or sexual harassment. “Military sexual trauma” or MST is the term used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to these experiences. The official definition of MST used by VA is given by federal law (U.S. Code 1720D of Title 38). It is:
Psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.
Sexual harassment is defined as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character.”
In more concrete terms, MST includes any sexual activity where you were involved against your will. You may have been physically forced into sexual activities. Or, 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 signs of MST.
Military sexual trauma also includes sexual experiences that happened while you were not able to consent to sexual activities, such as if you were intoxicated. Other MST experiences include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, threatening, offensive remarks about your body or your sexual activities, and threatening and unwelcome sexual advances. If these experiences occurred while you were on active duty or active duty for training, 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. They may have been a stranger to you, or even a friend or intimate partner. Veterans from all eras of service have reported experiencing MST.
If you experienced military sexual assault or harassment, you may blame yourself or feel ashamed. It is important to remember that MST is not your fault. Nothing ever justifies someone harassing or assaulting you.
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How can MST affect Veterans?
Military sexual trauma is an experience, not a diagnosis or a condition in and of itself. Because of this, Veterans may react in a wide variety of ways to experiencing MST. Problems may not surface until months or years after the MST, and sometimes not until after a Veteran has left military service. For some Veterans, experiences of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health, work, relationships, and everyday life even many years later.
Your reaction may depend on factors such as:
- Whether you have a prior history of trauma
- The types of responses you received from others at the time of the experience
- Whether the experience happened once or was repeated over time
Some of the difficulties both female and male survivors of MST may have include:
- Strong emotions: feeling depressed; having intense, sudden emotional responses to things; feeling angry or irritable all the time
- Feelings of numbness: feeling emotionally “flat”; trouble feeling love or happiness
- Trouble sleeping: trouble falling or staying asleep; bad dreams or nightmares
- Trouble with attention, concentration, and memory: trouble staying focused; often finding your mind wandering; having a hard time remembering things
- Problems with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily; getting drunk or “high” to cope with memories or unpleasant feelings; drinking to fall asleep
- Trouble with reminders of the sexual trauma: feeling on edge or “jumpy” all the time; not feeling safe; going out of your way to avoid reminders of the trauma; trouble trusting others
- Problems in relationships: feeling alone or not connected to others; abusive relationships; trouble with employers or authority figures
- Physical health problems: sexual issues; chronic pain; weight or eating problems; stomach or bowel problems
Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma, and VA has services to help Veterans move their lives forward.
Why can MST be so harmful?
Sexual assault is more likely to result in symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than are most other types of trauma, including combat. Also, the experience of MST can differ from the experience of other traumas, and even from the experience of sexual trauma in the civilian world. Why is this?
“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.”
Factors that may be unique to MST include:
- You may have had to continue to live and work with your perpetrator, and even rely on him or her for essential things like food, health care, or watching your back on patrol
- You may have been worried about damaging the team spirit of your unit if your perpetrator was in the same unit
- You may have been worried about appearing weak or vulnerable, and thoughts that others would not respect you
- You may have thought that if others found out, it would end your career or your chances for promotion
For these and other reasons, the experience of MST can put Service members in some no-win situations and be emotionally difficult for them to resolve as Veterans.
What should I know about treatment and VA services?
Although MST can be a very difficult experience, there are treatments available that can significantly improve your quality of life. Treatment often involves addressing any immediate health and safety concerns, followed by counseling to help you learn new ways of thinking, practice positive behaviors, and take active steps to cope with the effects of MST. Treatment may focus on strategies for coping with difficult emotions and memories or, for Veterans who are ready, treatment may involve actually talking about the MST experiences in depth.
At VA, Veterans can receive 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. To receive these services, you do not need a VA service-connected disability rating, and you don’t need to have reported the incident when it happened nor to have other documentation that it occurred.
Knowing that MST survivors may have special concerns, every VA health care facility has an MST Coordinator who can answer any questions you might have about VA’s MST services. VA has a range of services available to meet Veterans where they are in their recovery process:
- Every VA health care facility has providers knowledgeable about treatment for problems related to MST. Many have specialized outpatient mental health services focusing on sexual trauma. Vet Centers also have specially trained sexual trauma counselors.
- VA has over 20 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.
What can I do to help manage my reactions to my experiences of MST?
If you’re having problems related to your experiences of MST, you should consider seeking support from a doctor or counselor. In addition, there are many things you can do on your own to heal and recover after MST. Some basic lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on your overall well-being. Try to:
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Maintain a healthy diet by eating right
- Seek medical advice for any health concerns
- Avoid excessive use of alcohol
- Take over-the-counter and prescription drugs only as directed by your doctor
- Avoid illegal drug use
- Avoid risky behavior, like unsafe sex, gambling, and reckless driving
- Recognize triggers—keep a record to help identify situations that are more likely to worsen your symptoms
- Take up a new hobby or a recreational activity that can be a healthy way to fill your time
- Talk to others—this can help you from feeling isolated and give friends and loved ones a chance to help you
- Exercise regularly
- Practice relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, or prayer
Your close family and friends may notice that you’re having a tough time. If you feel comfortable, you may want to talk to them about what you’re experiencing. They may be able to provide support and help you find treatment that is right for you.
“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.”
You can also take a confidential and anonymous self-assessment about your reactions. This short list of questions may help you decide how important it is to see a professional for further evaluation.
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- 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.