Many men and women come out of combat carrying wounds that were not created by an enemy combatant. Often, those invisible wounds come from the soldier’s own comrades. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men in the military will be the victim on military sexual assault, and most of these cases do not happen over enemy lines.
Sexual violence in the US military has been recognized for a long time now. Military leaders, policy officials, and the media have spread awareness on the struggle to keep soldiers safe while deployed.
MST (military sexual trauma) is the result of sexual assault or harassment during military service. This can be in the form of:
- - Forced sexual experiences
- - Sexual encounters inflicted while the victim was unable to consent (during sleep or intoxication)
- - Unwanted or threatening sexual advances
- - Coercion into sexual activities with the threat of negative consequences if you do not comply
- - Being touched in a sexual manner that makes you uncomfortable
- - Repeated talk about your body or sexual activities
MST can happen on or off base, when the assailant is on or off duty, and during war or peacetime.
Sexual coercion (the promise of advancements or the threat of negative consequences) has been experienced by a staggering 27% for women and 8% for men (American Public Health Association, 2007). Women are much more commonly the victims on MST, but the VA reports that 40% of all cases reported to them are from males.
MST is an experience, not a diagnosis, so each individual will have their own way of dealing with it. Many who have been the victim of MST do not experience significant symptoms until after leaving the military.
MST and Veteran Suicide
Veterans who have been victims of MST are twice as likely to commit suicide than those who have not experienced MST. Of those veterans, we have data that shows that MST is a big indicator for suicidal ideation in female veterans:
“Studies of MST and suicide risk could inform a gender-related vulnerability observed among military and Veteran populations. Among Veterans, men have higher rates of suicide as compared with women, but the increased suicide risk relative to non-Veterans is substantially greater among women than men, even when accounting for the lower risk for suicide associated with VHA utilization. Similarly, mental health conditions pose a stronger risk for suicide among women VHA users as compared with men. Among the active duty Army, deployment is associated with significantly greater increase in suicide for women as compared with men”
With this information, we can be vigilant for veterans who have endured MST while serving.
Identification and Treatment of MST
In 1999, in response to the commonplace occurrence of sexual violence, the VA has made screening for MST automatic when enrolled. This gives us a more complete view of the issue that our servicemembers are facing. This universal screening process is meant to identify and treat servicemembers for any MST related physical injury, illness, or psychological issues. This program is free of charge regardless of eligibility, co-pay status or whether or not you reported the case when it happened.
Data tells us those that have endured sexual trauma or violence in the military are just as likely, or even more likely, to suffer from comorbid conditions like PTSD. Of all the types of MST, forcible sex or rape is most associated with PTSD. Almost all comorbid psychological conditions were seen at a higher rate in individuals who experienced MST – two to three times more likely, in fact.
It is a sad reality that most of the perpetrators of this violence are other military members, and usually the victims must continue to live around and work with their assailants if they do no immediately report the incidence. This can increase stress and contribute to additional psychological conditions.
The unit culture can contribute to a victim staying quiet. It is not uncommon for assailants to coerce or shame the victim into silence – or even outright blame them for the incident. All of this can lead to many issues, including:
- - Gynecological issues
- - Urinary tract Issues
- - Neurological dysfunction
- - Phycological disorders
- - Pulmonary issues
- - Gastrointestinal problems
- - Significant weight loss or weight gain
- - Numbness or feeling emotionally despondent
- - Sleep disruption or insomnia
- - Problems with interpersonal relationship
- - Lack of attention or focus
- - Overwhelming or strong emotions
- - Anxiety
- - Substance abuse
It has also been suggested that MST, particularly in cases with long-term exposure to sexual abuse, can mimic family violence. Treatment for MST is varied, depending on what comorbid conditions the individual has. Intensive therapy and medications (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, sleep aids, or benzodiazepines most commonly).
At K9s For Warriors, we have seen a lot of success for the symptoms of MST by using service dogs as warrior buddies and companions. Our highly trained dogs help calm anxiety, wake veterans from nightmares, create safe space in public settings, and act as a ‘brace’ for their handler.
We now have scientific proof that service dogs help with PTSD symptoms, and since PTSD is the most common comorbid condition for those who have endured MST, these dogs are a wonderful complimentary treatment solution for our struggling veterans.