I enlisted in the Army in 2000 and served for five years as an Arabic linguist, including a year-long Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Sexual harassment was a chronic, if low-level, part of my military experience. When I brought it up, a frequent response from peers was that I should have expected that treatment in a predominantly male workforce and shouldn’t complain because it might “ruin a man’s career.” That reaction from my fellow soldiers was actually more upsetting than the harassing behavior itself – it made me feel isolated and alone.
High visibility news stories, such as those currently circulating about the Marine Corps recent photo scandal, can sometimes bring back painful memories or lead individuals to realize they are having trouble coping with a difficult experience. If you, or someone you know, are experiencing challenges related to sexual harassment experienced during military service, know that VA can help.
Care is provided under the overarching term Military Sexual Trauma (MST), which is defined by law as “psychological trauma resulting 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.”
VA screens all Veterans seen for health care for MST to ensure they are aware and offered free MST-related care through VHA.
Know that MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a condition in and of itself. Veterans may react in a wide variety of ways and not every MST survivor will have long-term difficulties following the experience. For some Veterans, though, experiences of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health, work, relationships, and everyday life even many years later. PTSD is the most common mental health consequence of MST. Veterans who experienced MST may also have physical health difficulties including gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, sexual dysfunction or headaches.
VA provides all care for mental and physical health conditions related to MST free of charge, and Veterans do not need to have reported their experiences of MST at the time or have other documentation that they occurred in order to receive free MST-related health care. Service connection (VA disability compensation) is also not required, and Veterans may be able to receive free MST-related care even if they are not eligible for other VA care. For example there are no length-of-service or income requirements to receive MST-related care. Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges may be able to receive MST-related care with Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office approval.
VA offers a full continuum of mental health services for both male and female Veterans who experienced MST, including outpatient individual and group psychotherapy as well as residential programs that target rehabilitation, recovery, health maintenance, improved quality of life and community reintegration. Inpatient programs also exist for acute care needs such as psychiatric emergencies and stabilization or medication adjustment. MST-related outpatient counseling services are also available through VA’s community-based Vet Centers.
To lesson the burden of accessing care, every VA health care system has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as the local point person to help Veterans navigate the many services available to them. For help with treatment and health care related to MST, please contact your local VA Medical Center and ask to speak to the MST Coordinator.
If you are in crisis or know someone who is, contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK and press one (chat and text are also available) 24/7. For non-urgent questions about VA care and benefits for women Veterans, contact the Women Veterans Call Center at 855-VA-WOMEN.