Each April, the annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) campaign helps to raise public awareness of sexual assault, and educate individuals and communities on sexual violence prevention. This year, VA’s national theme for SAAM outreach activities is “Recovery from Military Sexual Trauma: Strength in Community.” VA specifically focuses on sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment experienced during military service—also known as military sexual trauma (MST).
Reflecting on the theme, Christine Cooper, MST coordinator at the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) VA, commented, “It reinforces that our Veterans who experienced MST have us and the community to walk alongside them on their healing journey. No more hiding or shame.”
When screened by a VA health care provider, about one in four women and one in 100 men report a history of MST. Although the percentage among women is much higher—given the far greater number of men in military service—there are significant numbers of both men and women who have experienced MST. In fact, more than 40 percent of the Veterans seen in VA who disclose MST are men.
For many survivors, a sense that they are alone can be an incredibly difficult part of the experience of MST, and connecting with a community of support can be very powerful. “Connecting with the strength in community takes both a degree of open-mindedness and courage,” said Gary Napier, a licensed clinical social worker, and MST coordinator at the Topeka (Kansas) VA Medical Center. ”I think connecting with community is the scariest thing for many of our Veterans with MST to do.”
In light of this, MST coordinators and other VA staff make special efforts to show their support to these Veterans during SAAM, hosting awareness-raising and educational events nationwide. And VA’s Make the Connection website features video clips of Veterans sharing their stories of recovery—a reminder that survivors are not alone in having experienced MST, or in having the strength to recover.
At VA, Veterans who experienced MST have access to a wide range of services and care with providers who are knowledgeable about treatment for the aftereffects of MST. In addition, every VA health care system has an MST coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues at the facility and can help Veterans access relevant VA services and programs.
All treatment for physical and mental health conditions related to experiences of MST is provided free-of-charge and is unlimited in duration. Veterans may be eligible for free MST-related care even if they are not eligible for other VA services, and service connection (VA disability compensation) is not required; no documentation of MST experiences is required. VA also engages in a range of outreach activities, ongoing staff education, and monitoring of MST-related screening and treatment, in order to ensure that adequate services are available.
For more information, Veterans may speak with a VA health care provider, contact the MST coordinator at their nearest VA medical center, or reach out to their local Vet Center. A list of VA and Vet Center facilities is located at http://www.va.gov/directory. Learn more about VA’s MST-related services at www.mentalhealth.va.gov/msthome.asp.
James Leathem is a member of VA’s national MST Support Team, where he serves as the field and dissemination coordinator. Prior to joining the team, he was the section chief of social work for mental health at the Northport (New York) VA, as well as the MST coordinator and the MST point of contact for the Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 3. He holds a master’s in education and a master’s in social work.