Free services help military members who experience sexual trauma

(BPT) - Military sexual trauma (MST) refers to a service member’s experience with sexual assault or sexual harassment at any point during military service. This could be anything from inappropriate jokes or lewd comments to unwanted advances or forced sexual encounters. In the past, veterans may have struggled to find the help they needed to treat MST, but one organization — DAV (Disabled American Veterans) — is striving for change.

“In my 10 years working as a DAV benefits expert, I have filed countless claims for MST survivors and fought alongside them on their journey through the daunting claims and appeals process,” said Carmen McGinnis, a DAV benefits specialist and MST survivor.

Many survivors become disheartened and frustrated when they receive a VA letter indicating the types of evidence they will need to provide. Worse yet, some get part of the way through but are so traumatized by the process, they abandon their claim altogether.”

An estimated one in four female veterans and one in 100 male veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system report experiencing MST. It is not, however, a woman-specific issue, as many men have also reported and are being treated at the VA for conditions related to military sexual trauma.

MST has become an increasingly prominent issue. In fact, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin himself has stated that “sexual assault and harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems” across the military. The DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) reported 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped in 2018, including 13,000 women and 7,500 men, an increase from roughly 14,900 in 2016.

Survivors of MST have options for coming forward, but almost 80% of cases still go unreported, which can make filing a VA claim for care and benefits difficult. Many veterans suffer long-term symptoms and conditions related to this trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, as well as gastrointestinal symptoms, headaches and chronic fatigue.

One veteran’s journey to find help

Navy veteran Mike Stern knows it takes strength to ask for help. He served for four years with deployments to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. After returning from a deployment, he was raped by a Navy officer.

Risking his military career, Stern reported the incident, which eventually led to separation from the Navy and a struggle to find treatment programs to address his MST-based PTSD. Stern was eventually able to access benefits through the help of DAV and its assistance programs.

DAV helps veterans to file VA claims at no cost and taps resources so veterans can find effective, empowering ways to cope with MST. All DAV benefits experts are veterans themselves — some are also survivors of MST — and they can help survivors walk through the claims process with compassion and discretion.

Additionally, MST survivors are eligible to receive health care services through the VA for their related conditions, regardless of whether they have a service-connected disability rating. And every VA facility also has a designated MST coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues. This person is an advocate and can help veterans find and access VA services and programs, state and federal benefits, and community resources.

Coping with MST

If you or someone you know is an MST survivor, here are some things that may help:

Professional counseling: Seeking a counselor or therapist who specializes in sexual trauma can be a good first step to healing.

Lifestyle changes: Exercising, eating healthfully, volunteering, avoiding drugs and alcohol, spending more time with loved ones and practicing optimism are all helpful.

Mindfulness: Being mindful is to be aware of and concentrate on the present. It can include breathing exercises or focusing on a singular thing, such as an enjoyable food or singing bird.

Practicing optimism: Being aware of and reflecting on the good things in your life can create joy and a sense of peace or happiness.

Peer groups: Finding others who have experienced MST can help you feel comfortable talking about MST and working through the intense emotions associated with it.

Trained service dogs: If you are struggling with post-traumatic stress or other conditions related to MST, you may benefit from a service dog that is specifically trained to help manage or mitigate symptoms. VA providers can help to determine eligibility for a service dog.

Explore options and keep an open mind

For more information about MST and assistance in the VA claims process, visit DAV.org.

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