Military sexual trauma, or MST, is the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to refer to experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that a Veteran experienced during his or her military service.
The definition used by the VA comes from Federal law (Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D) and is "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, active duty for training, or inactive duty training." Sexual harassment is further defined as "repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character."
Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma, and VA has effective services to help Veterans do this. VA is strongly committed to ensuring that Veterans have access to the help they need in order to recover from MST:
Military Sexual Trauma Details
MST includes any sexual activity where a Service member is involved against his or her will - he or she may have been pressured into sexual activities (for example, with threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied better treatment in exchange for sex), may have been unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated), or may have been physically forced into sexual activities. Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include:
-Unwanted sexual touching or grabbing
-Threatening, offensive remarks about a person's body or sexual activities
-Threatening and unwelcome sexual advances
The identity or characteristics of the perpetrator, whether the Service member was on or off duty at the time, and whether he or she was on or off base at the time do not matter. If these experiences occurred while an individual was on active duty or active duty for training, they are considered by VA to be MST.
MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health condition, and as with other forms of trauma, there are a variety of reactions that Veterans can have in response to MST. The type, severity, and duration of a Veteran's difficulties will all vary based on factors like:
-Whether he/she has a prior history of trauma
-The types of responses from others he/she received at the time of the MST
-Whether the MST happened once or was repeated over time
Although trauma can be a life-changing event, people are often remarkably resilient after experiencing trauma. Many individuals recover without professional help; others may generally function well in their life, but continue to experience some level of difficulties or have strong reactions in certain situations. For some Veterans, the experience of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health in significant ways, even many years later.
-Strong emotions: feeling depressed; having intense, sudden emotional responses to things; feeling angry or irritable all the time
-Feelings of numbness: feeling emotionally "flat"; difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness
-Trouble sleeping: trouble falling or staying asleep; disturbing nightmares
-Difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory: trouble staying focused; frequently finding their mind wandering; having a hard time remembering things
-Problems with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily; getting intoxicated or "high" to cope with memories or emotional reactions; drinking to fall asleep
-Difficulty with things that remind them of their experiences of sexual trauma: feeling on edge or "jumpy" all the time; difficulty feeling safe; going out of their way to avoid reminders of their experiences
-Difficulties with relationships: feeling isolated or disconnected from others; abusive relationships; trouble with employers or authority figures; difficulty trusting others
-Physical health problems: sexual difficulties; chronic pain; weight or eating problems; gastrointestinal problems
Although posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with MST, it is not the only diagnosis that can result from MST. For example, VA medical record data indicate that in addition to PTSD, the diagnoses most frequently associated with MST among users of VA health care are depression and other mood disorders, and substance use disorders.
For more information, Veterans can:
-Speak with their existing VA health care provider.
-Contact the MST Coordinator at their nearest VA Medical Center.
-Call Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247 to get confidential one-on-one help. Safe Helpline provides 24 hour a day, 7 day a week sexual assault support for the Department of Defense community.
-Contact their local Vet Center.
-Veterans should feel free to ask to meet with a provider of a particular gender if it would make them feel more comfortable.