When I first began my journey as a social worker, I naively thought I could ‘fix’ everyone. As a veteran myself I naturally thought I could easily relate to any vet and could help them with any challenge.
As life has a way of doing…I was quickly thrown a
One of my first clients was an older Vietnam era veteran. He came to me with housing insecurities, minimal income and numerous physical medical issues. This was all compounded by significant mental health issues and criminal justice involvement. I immediately started working with him on his most urgent need of housing. Over the next few months we were able to stabilize his housing, get him connected to the Veterans Administration and secure him additional income. Though life was looking up we had not touched his underlying mental health issues.
Back to my naive save the world mentality, I assumed the PTSD must be related to his time in Vietnam. This older male veteran must have PTSD from the war right?
Anytime I met a female client, I automatically did a screener to assess for Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Why had I not asked my male client after 3 months of working together? Why had I not done this with this client or any of my male veteran clients?
Well, I think we know where this is going. My male Vietnam veteran client disclosed he had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a superior while in training. He had never disclosed to anyone in over 30 years and routinely self-medicated with drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
Luckily, we were able to get this veteran connected to appropriate treatment and help him on the road to healing.
WHY? Why do we have assumptions of what Military Sexual Trauma is? Is it rape? Is it male on female assaults? Is it female on male? Is it female on female? Male on male? Is it harassment? The answer is any and all of these can be considered MST.
MST includes any sexual activity where a Service Member is pressured into sexual activities that include:
• Threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied better treatment in exchange for sex
• Inability to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated)
• Physical force used to induce into sexual activities.
• Unwanted sexual touching or grabbing
• Threatening, offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities
• Threatening and unwelcome sexual advances
MST can affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later.
Some of the difficulties both female and male survivors of MST may include:
• Disturbing memories or nightmares
• Difficulty sleeping
• Difficulty feeling safe
• Feelings of depression or numbness (emotionally flat)
• Problems with alcohol or other drugs
• Feeling isolated and disconnected from other people
• Problems with anger or irritability
• Feelings of shame and guilt
• Physical health problems
• Difficulty with concentration, memory, focus
• Avoidance of people, places, things that are reminders of the sexual trauma
• Feeling on edge or jumpy
• Sexual difficulties
• Chronic pain
• Excessive weight loss or gain
• Eating and gastrointestinal problems
• Suicidal thoughts
What is Unique about MST
• MST often occurs in a setting where the victim lives and works
• Victims many times have to continue to live and work closely with their perpetrators
• MST may disrupt career goals because perpetrators may be responsible for work related evaluations and promotions.
• Fear of reprisal from fellow Service Members and betrayal of unit cohesion.Seek medical and psychological assistance from a trained professional. In addition, there are many things you can do on your own to heal and recover after MST. Some basic lifestyle practices can have a positive impact on your overall well-being.
There is help for those who have experienced MST. Contact your local Veterans Administration or Vet Center for additional resources and specialized treatment.
Below are down-loadable brochures for Veterans, educational tools for providers, and articles that help survivors and providers learn more about MST and VA’s free MST-related services.
Down-loadable brochures available at:
Military Sexual Trauma Fact Sheet
Background information about MST, including what it is, how it can affect Veterans, and help available through VA.
MST Brochure for Veterans (English / Spanish)
An overview of issues related to MST and how to access VA services.
Men and MST — Educational Brochure (English / Spanish) and Infographic (English / Spanish)
Information on men’s recovery from MST.
Women and MST — Infographic (English/Spanish)
Information on women’s recovery from MST.
Help for Veterans Affected by Recent Public Discussions About Sexual Abuse – Information, coping suggestions, and resources for connecting with care, for Veterans who may be feeling distressed by recent public discussions about sexual assault and harassment.
Top 10 Facts About VA Services for MST
Quick reference information for non-VA service providers about VA’s MST-related offerings.
A Different Lens – Homeland Magazine
Mental Health Monthly
By RanDee McLain, LCSW