Many news sources have recently carried stories about a growing sexual abuse problem in the military. Military service members who are the victims of such abuse may suffer from a variety of mental and emotional side effects, known collectively as Military Sexual Trauma (MST). This is a recognized impairment that can be profoundly disabling, emotionally and physically.
MST is defined by the Department of Veterans Affairs as "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 or active duty for training" (U.S. Code 1720D of Title 38). Both women and men can suffer from MST. According to the VA's universal screening program for veterans who seek VA health care, roughly 20 percent of women and one percent of men said they experienced sexual trauma while in the military.
Many situations can cause MST. Perhaps the most common is sexual harassment, defined as "repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character." Victims may be involved in sexual activity or situations against their will. For example, harassers may imply that professional advancement and the likelihood of fair treatment is dependent on agreeing to sexual activities. Victims may be intoxicated or vulnerable in other ways and unable to resist being forced into unwanted sexual activity. MST can also result from unwanted sexual contact like touching or grabbing, repeated advances and offensive or threatening remarks.
The damaging effects of these situations are known as MST, but MST is not an independent diagnosis. Victims of MST may suffer from a wide range of effects that vary in type, severity and duration. These responses can include physical symptoms, depression, anger, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, difficulty focusing, drug or alcohol abuse and relationship problems. Some MST victims may be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The VA has implemented comprehensive programs to address all variants of MST, including screening, treatment, staff training, and veteran outreach initiatives. Treatment for MST-related conditions, both mental and physical, is free for veterans. Veterans also have access to free and confidential counseling, targeted long-term therapy and mental health groups. At each facility, an MST Coordinator can help victims access VA, state, and federal benefits and services. Even if veterans do not have VA disability ratings or are otherwise ineligible for VA care, VA medical facilities and professionals are available to help.
Veterans suffering from the effects of MST may also qualify for VA disability benefits. To qualify, victims must meet a higher standard of proof than that required for health care. Victims generally must obtain a medical diagnosis and provide corroborating evidence of harassment or sexual assault. Currently, the VA is developing new standards to ease the burden and make it easier for noncombat veterans - a category covering most female veterans - to qualify for disability benefits.