By Debra L. Stang

Jenny, a veteran who served as a nurse in Vietnam, lives in a homeless shelter between stints in rehab.She has had trouble with drinking ever since she was gang raped by soldiers she considered friends. Lara, who has just finished basic training, lies awake worrying every night. All she can think about are the three men in her unit who have been calling her crude names and telling her she’s “gonna get it.”

Jenny and Lara are both victims of military sexual trauma (MST). The Veterans Administration defines MST as “sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment.” According to the VA, about twenty percent of women (and about one percent of the men) who receive treatment at VA Health Centers report being victims of MST.

Jessica Kenyon, an MST survivor and the founder of Benefiting Veterans, a group which advocates for both male and female victims of MST, states that in her experience victims of MST tend to be low-ranking personnel. This is true because those with lower ranks make easier targets than do officers, and because those who complain about experiencing MST usually find their military careers stunted.

Active Duty Personnel

Kenyon explains that active duty MST victims who want help have two equally unattractive choices – make an unrestricted report or make a restricted report.

An unrestricted report goes to the commanding officer who then launches a full investigation into the incident(s). The commanding officer, who knows both parties and may be influenced by friendship or by the need to keep his or her unit “combat ready,” has the final say in any disciplinary action. There is no way for an MST victim to appeal if she does not feel adequately protected.

“The process needs accountability and impartiality,” Kenyon says. “At the very least, there should be an appeals process and complaints should be investigated by a commanding officer who does not know either party.”

According to the VA, 1 in 5 of the women (and about one percent of the men) who receive treatment at VA Health Centers report being victims of MST.

A restricted report, on the other hand, allows the victim to get help without officially reporting the crime. She may speak to medical personnel, mental health personnel, chaplains, and a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC). However, if she discusses the incident with anyone outside of these people, or if the information gets back to the commanding officer in any other way, it can spark a full investigation, whether the victim wants one or not.

In spite of the problems with the investigative process, Kenyon tells MST survivors, “Don’t eliminate options.” She says that even if they are sure they do not want a full investigation, they should still make a restricted report and request that any evidence of sexual assault be collected and held.

She also advises first responders not to assume that an MST victim will want to be discharged from the military. “We volunteered for a reason,” she says. “Why should [being assaulted] cost us our livelihood?”

MST and Disability

A woman who has been discharged from the army and who still has problems coping with day-to-day life due to MST can apply for service-related disability.

Elly Kugler, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, is an attorney who works primarily with female veterans living in shelters. She estimates that 99 percent of her clients suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder and that much of it is related to MST.

She explains that in the past, proving disability based on MST was almost impossible. Newer laws, however, have done away with the need for a “smoking gun,” such as an eyewitness or the conviction of the assailant. Now, says Kugler, an MST victim can get disability benefits if she can show negative behavior changes, or “markers,” that date back to the time of the incident(s).

Markers may include a record of disciplinary actions taken against the victim around the time of the assault, new or increased use of alcohol or drugs, or a disruption in relationships, such as cutting oneself off from family and friends. She suggests that veterans who want to apply for disability based on MST request their military records as well as their military health records and review them for any such changes. Family and friends may also submit statements about the victim’s behavior at the time.

Tara Wise, MST survivor and founder of the National Women Veterans Association of America, emphasizes that, in addition to applying for disability, soldiers who have been traumatized by MST need to find compassionate and ongoing treatment programs. Unfortunately, she adds, during difficult economic times, it is harder for new programs to get funded. The older veteran’s programs that traditionally receive government funds were established before the needs of women veterans were openly discussed, and many of them have not updated their treatment programs to meet these needs.

MST: Towards a Brighter Future

To its credit, the VA has broken its traditional silence and has begun publishing statistics about the number of soldiers affected by military sexual trauma. In 1992, it initiated the intensive, 60-day Women’s Trauma Recovery Program at the National Center for PTSD in Menlo Park, California.

The VA isn’t the only agency responding to the needs of traumatized veterans. The Adler School of Professional Psychology has added a military clinical psychology track to its doctoral program in clinical psychology. The founder of the military track, Dr. Joseph Troiani, states that he is pleased to see that many of the students involved in the program are women and veterans. While some of the graduates will go into private practice, the majority are planning to join or continue careers in the military or to go to work for the VA as trained civilians.

Tara Wise says she is always glad to learn of civilian involvement when it comes to helping victims of MST. “The VA isn’t going to be able to deal with this issue all alone,” she says. “It’s going to take the public overall.”

Debra Stang is a freelance writer based in Merriam, Kansas.