Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an annual effort each April to raise public awareness about sexual assault. Throughout the month, VA focuses on sexual assault and sexual harassment occurring during military service – also known as military sexual trauma, or MST. This year’s theme across VA is“Speaking up, moving forward: VA supports survivors of military sexual trauma”.
VA military sexual trauma coordinators, such as Melica Wiley, of the Texas Valley Coastal HCS, are taking the theme to heart. Wiley thinks “of all the survivors of military sexual trauma who have remained silent out of fear and/or the stigmas associated with sexual assault. However, due to the #MeToo movement – many survivors for the first time in their lives felt safe enough to speak up.”
“The best way we can support survivors of sexual trauma is by providing a safe place where they can talk. Speaking up is essential for moving forward,” said Susan Thompson of the Fargo North Dakota VA medical center. “There’s power in speaking up, in acknowledging not only what happened but that what happened wasn’t the end of the story. You get to write the rest of the story and you decide where you go from here. It’s constantly inspiring to see the way that speaking up can bring people together, inspire energy for change. After trauma, so many people show exceptional strength and courage, saying this history will not define me, and making sense out of senselessness.“
At VA, Veterans who experienced military sexual trauma have access to a wide range of services to assist them in their recovery free of charge. Veterans may be eligible for free MST-related care even if they are not eligible for other VA services. No documentation of MST experiences is required. In addition, every VA health care system has a military sexual trauma coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues at the facility and can help Veterans access relevant VA services and programs.
Sadly, about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men seen for VA health care report a history of military sexual trauma when screened by a VA provider. Although the percentage among women is higher more than 40 percent of the Veterans seen in VA who disclose MST are men.
Because of this, coordinators and other VA staff make special efforts during Sexual Assault Awareness Month to show support for Veterans who experienced military sexual trauma by hosting awareness-raising and educational events. Also, VA’s Make the Connection website has video clips of Veterans sharing their stories of recovery, as a reminder that survivors are not alone in having experienced MST or in having the strength to recover.
For more information, Veterans can speak with a VA health care provider, contact the military sexual trauma coordinator at their nearest VA medical center, or contact their local Vet Center. A list of VA and Vet Center facilities can be found on VA’s website, va.gov. Veterans can also learn more about VA’s military sexual trauma-related services online at https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/msthome.asp.
James Leathem is a member of VA’s national Military Sexual Trauma Support Team, where he serves as the field and dissemination coordinator. Prior to joining the team, he was the social work section chief for mental health at the Northport, New York VA, as well as the military sexual trauma coordinator and VISN 3 military sexual trauma point of contact. He holds a masters in education and a masters in social work.