Processing the Pain after Military Sexual Trauma
April 20, 2023 | 3-minute read
While stationed on an air base in Louisiana, Anna started dating a noncommissioned officer.
“At first, he was typical: super-nice, super-sweet, did everything any girl wanted you to do,” she recalls. Then came the red flags. He became manipulative and jealous, and he even physically assaulted Anna. They broke up. One night a short while later, he came to Anna’s apartment and sexually assaulted her after seeing her talking to a man at a bar.
“Then, he kind of acted like it was something I deserved,” Anna says. His attitude made it particularly hard for Anna to process the military sexual trauma (MST) afterward. “I didn’t let myself process it. I pushed it down.”
Healing and acceptance after MST
Anna’s not alone. 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, which refers 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. Perpetrators can be men or women, military personnel or civilians, superiors or subordinates in the chain of command, strangers, friends — or intimate partners, like Anna’s ex.
After the assault, Anna isolated herself and passed the time watching TV. She would stay up all night because she couldn’t sleep.
“I cried a lot,” Anna remembers. “I was in my head a lot and blaming myself.” Self-blame and shame are common emotions after surviving MST, even though survivors are never to blame and nothing justifies sexual harassment or assault. The effects of MST can be devastating and long-lasting, especially without mental health support.
At her mother’s suggestion, Anna talked with a counselor on the posttraumatic stress disorder clinical team at her local VA facility. “She [the counselor] had me do a lot of different homework assignments, and one of the big ones was a thought log,” says Anna.
Whenever Anna had a thought like “This was my fault,” “I let him do this,” or “I spoke to him, so I must have let him believe that it was OK,” she would make a note of it in her log. Then she would consider the evidence supporting — and the evidence contradicting — those thoughts she’d had. This analytical approach helped Anna process her experience and emotions, and she realized that she was not to blame for what happened to her.
In addition, Anna’s counselor has helped her work through lingering issues of trust and intimacy to prevent Anna from carrying her trauma forward into new, nontraumatic relationships.
“Getting back into a healthy relationship with yourself, with someone, and with your family — I think that’s something that’s just so important, and I don’t think enough people do it,” Anna says.
Mental health support after MST is “necessary to your health,” Anna adds. “Even your physical health, because the stress of it can just destroy you, and talking to someone really, really, really helped.”