Are you, or is someone you know, a victim of Military Sexual Trauma (MST)?
We recognize there are many and separate issues for male Service members who have been sexually assaulted by other men, and the Birdwell Foundation is here to help them. But the focus of this article is on female victims of MST: what it is, and what the resulting Military Sexual Trauma generally entails.
Were you pressured into sex or threatened? Were you in a position where you couldn’t give consent because you were drugged, intoxicated or unconscious?
Or were you repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment – jokes about you, inappropriate touching, groping, a cheap feel, someone coming onto you repeatedly? Perhaps promised something in exchange for sex, such as better duty assignments or promotion? Or threatened with loss of position, bad assignments, or "Page 11" if you didn’t comply?
That’s all part of sexual assault with potential long-lasting, destructive, traumatic effects. Your anxiety, depression and harmful thoughts are very real …. But help is available.
We’ve got your six!
If you were sexually molested while in the military, on or off duty, you are not alone. 1-in-5 military women report MST, but It is estimated that at least 75% of sexual assaults go unreported for a variety of intimidating and threatening reasons. The actual number of total MST victims, including sexual harassment, is estimated to be as high as 1-in-2 today.
The accounts are shocking. The damage is intense. It affects you mentally, emotionally, socially, relationally, spiritually and physically. The deepest and most debilitating wounds are psychological and spiritual ones that spun off from the trauma. The trauma changes who you are and every aspect of your life. But it can get better. And you can find a new “safe place.”
Want help? Call (832) 374-4696 --
Female & Family Services at the Birdwell Foundation for PTSD.
What is Military Sexual Assault?
The term “Military Sexual Assault” (MSA) is applied to all sexual contact characterized by the use of force, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority and/or where the victim is drugged, intoxicated, unconscious or otherwise unable to consent. MSA also includes sexual harassment, inappropriate touching and unwanted sexual advances. These, too, can build to a significant trauma state over time with repetition, retaliation and/or threats.
MSA often involves rape, repeated harassment and sexual assault by a peer or superior with whom the victim must live and work daily, followed by intense peer persecution and/or official reprisals that intensify the sexual trauma experienced by the victim and alter her life permanently.
One of the most threatening elements for a military woman is that she often knows her assailant and lives, works and socializes in the same environment as the assailant. Consider having to live and work with the perpetrator after the event to the point of possibly relying on him for her safety on patrol or for necessary supplies. That makes it very difficult to report the sexual assault – and potentially horrendous if she does. It also means she has no “safe place.”
The trauma is further complicated by such things as worries about damaging cohesion within the unit, fears of showing weakness or vulnerability or losing respect, and damaging career if the truth is revealed about an unreported rape.
What are the consequences for sexually abused Military Women?
Everyone reacts differently, but all are seriously injured. Simply having survived is not enough. The damage is deep and real with a prolonged effect not only on the survivor’s mental health but on her physical health as well. The problems may remain latent only to materialize weeks, months or years after the traumatic event. They could affect the woman’s ability to function on an every-day level for decades. And the symptoms only tend to get worse without help.
For those military women who dare to report the assault, most report being taunted, jeered at, shunted and worse retaliation by peers in the unit. If a male peer in the unit was the perpetrator, women report other men in the unit tend to ban with him for protection of the brethren. Instead of help, female victims may be continually taunted and harassed with such things as, “You knew what you were getting into when you joined this male-dominated world,” or “slut,” “dirt bag,” “blue falcon,” “faker,” “rape bait” and more.
Especially with the often-overwhelming persistence of taunts, insults and reminders on top of the assault, the MSA survivor generally develops “faulty thought” in her mind, hearing repeatedly a bombardment of taunting voices in her head. She develops an inaccurate self-assessment, and her belief system is severely disrupted.
Was it her fault after all? Is she really that bad? With great anxiety and pain, she wonders if she really is what her peers jeer. Could they be true? Where did she go wrong in her life?
She may struggle with getting MST thoughts out of her head. She may feel ashamed as though she should have been able to do something to stop it. Or feel that it said something about her or changed her for the worse, believing “I’m broken, dirty and worthless.”
The assault survivor may become angry, defensive and trigger-tempered. She will often be edgy, on guard constantly, unable to do what she wants because it doesn’t feel safe. For example, she may feel too anxious and unsafe to sit in a movie theater or crowded restaurant.
Or she may go in the other direction with feelings of emotional numbness and inability to feel happiness or love, leading to avoidance of physical or emotional relationships. Existing personal relationships are damaged, too. When she desires it, still she may have difficulty getting close, loving, trusting and having intimacy, even with her husband.
The trauma complicates the survivor’s ability to work. She will generally suffer from lack of sleep and exhaustion, have trouble paying attention or concentrating, and have difficulty staying focused. She may become "dissociated" – drifting off in the middle of a conversation without warning, losing the thread of her thoughts, forgetting what she was in the midst of saying. Work or school may seem harder or may be disrupted by her anger or edginess. She may even develop full-blown PTSD symptoms that render her unable to function at times.
So the survivor may turn to destructive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse -- prescription or illicit drugs or alcohol -- to try to escape her pain and to silence the voices in her head. But alone, it only gets worse….
The toll military service is taking on women is immense. As Glenn Towery, a Vietnam War combat veteran, founder and chairman of the Veterans Suicide Prevention Channel, said:
“There are many instances of PTSD among veterans. But the mix of MST, PTSD, the pressures of family, military duty, and possibly prevalent military misogynistic attitudes may be playing a lethal role when it comes to escalating and continuing this deadly problem of female veteran suicide.”
When a Superior Officer is involved
Sexual assault is an interpersonal assault, the intentional violation of the woman’s individual boundaries and person rights. Rape is primarily about power, violence and control rather than sex per se. The military culture is strong on power, control, and unquestioned obedience to command that supersedes all personal rights. Sadly, sometimes a superior uses that unbending command for obedience to force compliance with the sexual event(s). Dare the victim disobey direct orders? Unthinkable. Or report her superior officer?
There has been a tendency for powers-that-be to sweep the issues of MSA and MST under the rug both to preserve image and to save the career of an otherwise-fine officer (the perpetrator). Women have reported incidences of military “justice” through the chain-of-command putting the perpetrator in a position effectively to eliminate the problem -- that is, remove his side of the problem.
In some instances, the victim may have been thrown into military prison by the perpetrator. Or was it by the superior’s friend operating under of the code of protecting his fellow officer? Or by another officer since the superior is believed far above that little female trouble-maker, the “faker” and "slut" who has no credibility?
So many or most MSA survivors understandably fear her credibility may be undermined by her male superior officer. She is terrified that he will write a Page 11! She may be court-martialed, perhaps with her court martial written by the perpetrator himself. And she may be thrown out of the military with a dishonorable discharge, thereby denied all of her military benefits, permanently disenfranchised, unable to own land or vote ever again. She may also be unable to obtain work in civilian life because of the dishonorable discharge on her record. Unable to support herself, she may become homeless.
All because she dared to report a rape.
Some MSA victims are crying out today that this happened to them. YouTube is full of their video testimonies, and professional counsellors have heard very many. The issue is getting attention, but “normal channels” are falling far short from true relief. And female military suicides are climbing.
Reporting Trends and Options
Is it any wonder an estimated 75% of military women do not report their sexual attacks? According to one Department of Defense analysis, 19,000 incidents of sexual assault take place in the military every year, but only 13.5% get reported.
Women only became recognized as official combatants in war in 2013. After putting men and women so closely together that year, the Pentagon announced a sharp rise in reports of sexual assault. There were only 238 convictions for the estimated 26,000 sexual assaults.
Sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in our society and in the military. As a result, the DOD now has a “Confidentiality Policy” providing military sexual assault victims two reporting options: restricted and unrestricted reporting. With restricted reporting, MSA/MST survivors can receive medical care, SARC or VA assistance, counseling and drug treatment without command or law enforcement officials and without naming the assailant. Their confidentiality is guaranteed. SARC will only notify the senior commander that an assault has occurred but not identify the victim. This help is available even if they were dishonorably discharged if they can show certain elements.
This has led to more reporting using the anonymous, restricted reporting provisions. But CBS News claims increased reporting has not led to more accountability. Leaders have apparently failed to change the pervasive culture of sexual assault in the military. [See the Stripes.com article: https://www.stripes.com/news/us/increased-reporting-of-military-sexual-assaults-has-not-led-to-more-accountability-cbs-news-finds-1.652463]
That Stripes.com article goes on to report findings of the “2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active-Duty Members.” The anonymous survey said 20,473 service members (male and female) reported experiencing sexual assault in 2017. That’s an increase of 38% over the reported 14,900 sexual assaults in fiscal year 2016.
The article further reported that 64% of women who reported a sexual assault said they experienced retaliation. 57 victims said they faced retaliation specifically because of the report. Only one of those cases went to court-martial.
Real Help Is Available
Reported or not, and whether the assault and trauma are medically treated or not, until the whole woman is treated mind-body-spirit, the symptoms, side effects, anxieties, fears and suicides will continue to destroy lives. It doesn’t matter whether the event was last year or decades ago; it will fester inside with eruptions and hypertension you don’t want to live with until “healed from the inside out.”
Enter the proven programs of the Birdwell Foundation for PTSD. With the highly-effective comfort-zone of peer-to-peer mentoring by those who have “been there,” combined with the proven programs based on real internal healing, spiritual healing, survivors are finding real help, hope and recovery.
For deep, lasting healing and to find your “new normal” with a new “safe place,”
call the Birdwell Foundation’s FEMALE/FAMILY SERVICES HOTLINE: 757-358-2194.
We’ve got your six!
No one heals alone!