Military Sexual Trauma: The Unspoken Truth

June 30, 2021

It has been one year since Vanessa Guillen was found near Army post Fort Hood in Texas. As we reflect on the difficulty of that time, we come to a stage of reckoning that military sexual trauma is pervasive and ever present in our communities. While Vanessa Guillen’s case garnered national attention, there are countless others like her, who have experienced sexual assault, harassments, repeated threatening and other traumatic sexual experiences while serving in the Armed Forces. The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs uses this to define Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Sexual assault and harassments are serious problems in the United States Armed Forces. Thousands of service member each year are estimated to have experienced some form of MST including rape, sexual assault and sexual harassments. 

An estimated 1 in 4 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans in the VA Healthcare system report experiencing MST. As with any sexual crime, anyone can be a victim and anyone can be a harm doer. So how does this affect our communities at large? What if I do not live in a “military town?” How can this issue affect me? What are options to help?

The persistence of sexual violence within the US armed forces is a fact long recognized by military officials, policymakers, health care professionals, and the media. In order to help those who are dealing with MST rape trauma syndrome (RTS) and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we must first acknowledge that every single day is different and every single survivor deals with their experiences differently. Triggers can come unexpectedly and with severe consequences. They can bring feelings of shame, loneliness, or helplessness. These emotions can manifest in different ways. Veterans can appear irritable, even angry, at times. Veterans become “overachievers,” trying to drown out their pain with countless hours of hard work. They might seem sad and may withdraw. We must acknowledge that each person who suffers from MST, RTS, and PTSD is affected in their own way. Sometimes, veterans are suffering in silence. While they seem fine on the outside, they are in a dark place on the inside.

Help is available, but in order to seek assistance, veterans must know it’s out there. The VA offers free and confidential treatment through its Military Sexual Trauma Support Team, aimed specifically at helping those with MST PTSD. There are support groups and organizations out there in order to provide a safe space to work through the trauma. MST survivors may find solace among others with similar experiences. However, it’s not enough. In my opinion, disability benefits for veterans with MST PTSD are not evaluated on the same playing field as veterans with combat-related PTSD. It is important we recognize and fix this inequality.

It has taken me years to reach the point of advocating for change. What I have learned is to leverage the trauma and to keep working through it. I use my own military sexual trauma as a motivator. It keeps me moving forward and pushes me to learn everything I can about my industry and to make the right connections. I use my past as a source of strength. I served my country and I am resilient. So too, are the other veterans suffering right now, whether we know it or not. Each trigger is not a setback, but rather, a reminder to keep pushing forward. We cannot undo the past, but we can manage how it affects our present and our future.

Sexual trauma is still a major problem in the armed forces. We need to acknowledge that our country has serious shortcomings while serving those who carry this burden, as the military works to combat the issue within its own ranks. Now is the time to make everyone aware, and now is the time to show support for change. Let this blog, my deeply personal acknowledgement, serve as a start to your conversations. Let’s not let what happened to Vanessa and countless others relinquish the opportunity to effect change in us and around us. Active duty and veteran survivors are all around you. They are essential workers, they are political strategists, they are advocates, they are everywhere in your community that you are in. As we are well aware from the COVID pandemic, trauma has far reaching effects. Not just for those who are actively experiencing the trauma, but also for those who are in the healthcare systems that veterans reach out to outside of the military. Also, for the dual agencies and rape crisis centers in the “non- military towns” who must learn to provide accessible services for veterans. And lastly, those who help to make positive changes in the way veterans are cared for after their MST and beyond. 

So in questioning how to help, how to advocate, how to be present for MST survivors, the best ways to start are by having conversations. Making sure the local and national resources for veterans are readily available to access. Do some research! Learn more about the veterans in your community, get actively involved with your closest Military faction, or veteran support service. If your community does not have one, work with your community leaders to incorporate something. We have given the ultimate sacrifice and signed a blank check for our lives to serve this country. Sexual assault is the highest violation of that honor and as a community, as a country, as a nation, we must stand together and say military sexual trauma is unacceptable and we will do everything in our power to right the wrongs experienced by those whose honor and valor was unequivocally violated.