Military Sexual Trauma: What Help is Available?

Last year, the Air Force was embroiled in a scandal centering on rape allegations at the basic training facility at Lackland Air Force Base, part of Joint Base San Antonio. At least one instructor, Luis Walker, was convicted of 28 separate UCMJ counts arising from the raping female trainee, and sexually abusing as many as nine others. Follow-up investigations ensnared twelve instructors accused of sexually victimizing 31 female trainees.

A recent report recommended that military commanders do more to prevent rape and sexual assault in the ranks.

Lackland was just one military facility among hundreds. A recent documentary, The Invisible War, takes a hard look at the problem of sexual harassment, assault and rape within the ranks of the military. The Defense Department estimates that as many as 19,000 servicemembers may have been sexually assaulted in 2010, according to reporting by NPR (Do read the excellent comments by JRSCline at the link, though).

I don’t believe that there is a ‘rape culture’ within the military – no unit I’ve ever been in would tolerate it or knowingly look the other way while it happened. Knowing the military, I believe there is a danger of military officials identifying 500 of the last five actual sexual predators. However, there is no denying that rape or sexual assault does in fact, occur, and if it happens once, it’s too common.

As the military considers what measures they can take to prevent future assaults, here is a brief overview of the resources available to help military members and veterans who have been victimized by sexual predators, and can use some help.


Have you just been raped or assaulted?

Read this first! Understanding the process can help safeguard potential evidence and preserve your options and the options of law enforcement in prosecuting a crime.


Military Sexual Trauma vs. PTSD

According to U.S. Code 1720D of Title 38, military sexual trauma is defined as “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 further defined as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character.” Military sexual trauma is therefore an event, as opposed to a psychological condition. However, the fallout from MST can lead to a number of psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and so forth.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men respond ‘yes’ when screened via questionnaires for possible military sexual trauma.

Note that while women are nearly 5 times more likely to self-report some personal affliction with military sexual trauma, they only represent about one fifth of the military. The net result is that there are nearly as many men coming to the VA with MST as there are women.


Are You Suffering Because of MST?

You may need help dealing with MST if you have been sexually assaulted, raped or otherwise sexually traumatized during your military service, and you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms or characteristics:

  • •  Depression
  • •  Feelings of hopelessness
  • •  Feeling a lack of self-worth.
  • •  Eating disorders
  • •  Performance decline at work
  • •  Forgetfulness and preoccupation
  • •  Nightmares and sleep terrors
  • •  Insomnia
  • •  Anxiety about falling asleep
  • •  An urge to self-harm
  • •  Anger
  • •  Anxiety
  • •  Suicidal wishes or thoughts
  • •  Alcohol or drug abuse
  • •  Fear of intimacy
  • •  Hypersexuality – numbing the pain through irresponsible sexual behavior

The good news is that many of these conditions – if rooted in MST or PTSD – respond effectively to treatment. The medical and mental health fields are getting much more sophisticated in their understanding of the physiological and psychological reactions to stress than they were just a few years ago. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications are getting more effective, with fewer side effects, for example. Furthermore, there are some emerging treatments for various forms of PTSD showing signs of promise.

For many individuals, simply knowing that they aren’t dealing with the problem alone – and that their reactions to it and the symptoms they experience are quite common and normal responses to terrible stressors – can be a great load off of their minds.

The symptoms of military sexual trauma and other stressors that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (now increasingly referred to as “syndrome” rather than “disorder”) overlap a great deal. For example, anxiety, distrust of others, discomfort in crowds, agoraphobia, and self-medication or numbing with alcohol and drugs are common reactions to both kinds of stressors. However, there are some differences in treatment, which the VA recognizes.

For example, it is very common for women veterans to feel uncomfortable going through a more generalized PTSD course of treatment, including group therapy, with mixed-gender groups who may be there as a result of very different traumas, such as combat experiences. They may not feel the same bonds with their male peers as combat veterans do with one another.

Many VA facilities therefore offer a separate, women-only program specifically designed for those dealing with military sexual trauma.

Some other things you should know:

  • •  All VA treatment for anything related to military sexual trauma is free.
  • •  You don’t have to have a disability rating.
  • •  There’s no ‘statute of limitations.’ If you’re a veteran, you can get treatment for MST at the VA no matter how many years have elapsed since the traumatizing event.
  • •  Every VA facility has an MST coordinator, who can advise you, confidentially and in private, about the programs available to you.
  • •  All VA centers have counselors who are specially trained in assisting veterans with MST.
  • •  Both outpatient and inpatient programs are available.
  • •  You are encouraged to ask for a female counselor, or a male counselor, if you prefer.


The Safe Helpline

Want to talk to someone now? The Safe Helpline is the online portal for anyone in the DoD community – military, civilian or dependent – who needs help, support or advice about anything having to do with sexual assault or trauma. You can get confidential, one-to-one help, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, by calling 1-877-995-5247.

If you prefer to work outside of the VA or the military health care system, you can also contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network hotline. However, RAINN operates both help lines.


Contributed by Jason Van Steenwyk

This article has been edited to specify that the rapes and sexual assaults happened at Lackland AFB, which is part of Joint Base San Antonio, and to clarify the difference between MST, a stressor or event, rather than a diagnosis, and clinical diagnoses such as PTSD. The author wishes to thank Miette Wells Ph.D., author of Military Sexual Trauma, for her time and her assistance with this piece. 


  • Retired Vet
    Posted March 29, 2013 7:53 pm 0Likes

    Thank you for listing all of the psychological fallout from being raped.

    What many do not realize that internal as well as external injuries occur. Not only are the reproductive organs damaged, but depending upon the force and number of rapists involved, the spine, hips, neck, jaw and skull (TBI), spleen and so forth can be damaged. The risk of contracting one or more STDs and/or HIV exists also.

    That being said, our society by deed and actions has demeaned women and children. Rape and assault are as common on the street as on the screen.

    Some of the individuals bring this cultural practice into an organization which overtime has not welcomed women and minorities graciously.

    There is a rape culture in the military for more reasons than this response can cover, few know there is one in the VA system as well. This was documented by the IG but no response ever came from Shinseki.

    The men (staff and vets) feel it is open season when women veterans come for treatment. Consequently few women return and usage by women vets is low. I have had several veterans tell me to my face I had no right to take the place of a man for treatment. My daughter who had just returned from Afghanistan got the same response.

    The rape emphasis is all about our women which is greater than what you know. I went to a State VA health conference last spring and most of the 80 participants were young women who had served OIF/OEF. About half had been raped. Talking with some of them, they stories were: transferred out by their commanders as unable to adjust to the service. They lose their career and benefits. The perpetrator keeps his career and can go on to rape again.

    I met a veteran recently who received an Article 15 each time she defended herself from being raped and beat up her assaulter. She had a large number of Article 15s including one involving someone up the command structure. They are still working; she is recovering. She is the most courageous woman I have met.

    I hope you add a column for one of my concerns: The men on man and man on man raping which is occurring? Other than the American Legion acknowledgment of the problem in a video, I have yet to see it in print or on a major radio or new program to make our communities aware. We are leaving our men behind on the mental battlefield. Who is walking with them to the VA or Vet Center? How many are committing suicide?

    Not everyone is comfortable going to the VA in their area especially if the Guard or Reserve unit members also go for care in this facility. The risk of meeting the perpetrator will keep the veteran who needs treatment from getting needing treatment. There are Vet Centers as well as other free standing Veteran centered counseling sites which are free to the veteran and family.

    As funds dwindle, we need to make sure the funds stay to fund the care for the men and women who have been raped. The VA facility only provides MST counseling for OEF/OIF/ND veterans. The rest of us were discontinued. MST and the PTSD are lifelong and deserve the care that was promised.

  • Miette Wells
    Posted April 2, 2013 10:37 pm 0Likes

    Military Sexual Trauma is not a diagnosis, it is not a mental health condition, it does not have symptomologies like PTSD. You cannot ‘have’ MST, you can experience it, but it is not a disorder or a disease. You can have PTSD from experiencing MST, you can also have Major Depression, Anxiety. But again, and this need to be understood, MST is not a diagnosis, it is not a disorder, it is not a disease, it does not have symptoms. You can have symptoms from it but that is all.

    • admin
      Posted April 3, 2013 6:18 am 0Likes

      Hi, Miette. Thanks for writing in.

      You are correct that MST is not a diagnosis according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it IS a diagnosis the VA can use thanks to a law passed by Congress. That is what allows personnel to get treatment for free and because our site is focused on military benefits, that is what our article uses as a reference.

  • CD
    Posted January 8, 2014 3:48 pm 0Likes

    I was in the USMC 1969 and while at MCRD Perris Island, SC. I was a victim of sexual assault. When I reported to my Co-Captain and Captain, I saw a psychiatrist once. I was there questioned and soon after processed for discharge. I received Honorable discharge and have seen psychiatry for years, been married many times and divorced. I am diagnosed MST/ PTSD……I am disabled and have tried to get VA Disability and been denied. Can you give me any idea where I can get help. I do get my healthcare at the VA. Thank you.

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