Military Sexual Trauma


Military Sexual Trauma (MST) refers to experiences of sexual assault, or repeated threatening sexual harassment that occurred while a person was in the military. This term is specifically a term used and defined by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the definition for MST comes from federal law (Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D). MST is defined as "psychological trauma which resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexualharassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training."

The behavior may include physical force, threats of negative consequences, implied promotion, promises of favored treatment, or intoxication of either or both the perpetrator or victim. Other events that may be categorized as MST may include unwanted sexual contact, threatening, offensive remarks, and unwelcome sexual advances.

MST is something that happened to you. It is NOT a diagnosis or a mental health condition. As with other traumatic experiences, there are a variety of reactions that service members can have in response to MST, and can be based on additional factors such as:

  • Do you have a history of trauma?
  • How others responded to you at the time you experienced trauma?
  • Did the trauma happen one time, or over a period of time?

Traumatic events can be life altering but many service members are incredibly resilient after experiencing trauma. Many service members can recover without the help of a professional, others may generally function well in their life, but can continue to experience symptoms in certain situations, and for some, MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health in significant ways, even many years later.

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Some of the SYMPTOMS of MST may include (Department of Veterans Affairs, 2017):

  • Strong emotions: feeling depressed, having intense, sudden emotional responses to things, feeling angry or irritable all the time
  • Feelings of numbness: feeling emotionally "flat", difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness
  • Trouble sleeping: trouble falling or staying asleep, disturbing nightmares
  • Difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory: trouble staying focused, frequently finding their mind wandering, having a hard time remembering things
  • Problems with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily, getting intoxicated or "high" to cope with memories or emotional reactions, drinking to fall asleep
  • Difficulty with things that remind them of their experiences of sexual trauma: feeling on edge or "jumpy" all the time, difficulty feeling safe, going out of their way to avoid reminders of their experiences
  • Difficulties with relationships: feeling isolated or disconnected from others, abusive relationships, trouble with employers or authority figures, difficulty trusting others
  • Physical health problems: sexual difficulties, chronic pain, weight or eating problems, gastrointestinal problems

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is something that happened to you. It is NOT a diagnosis or a mental health condition. As with other traumatic experiences, there are a variety of reactions that service members can have in response to MST, so let’s dispel some myths upfront.

#1. Myth: I just had a bad sexual experience.

If you have found our page, that tells us that you think it’s possible that you had more than just a bad experience. It tells us that you think you may have been sexually assaulted.
Truth: Most sexual assaults that occur in the military are what we refer to as “acquaintance rape.” It is not a stranger who jumps out of the bushes and attacks you. It is a friend, a friends’ friend, someone in your unit, a superior, someone in the barracks, or someone you met at a bar. It can even be your significant other.

#2. Myth: I called / texted / emailed / visited my attacker afterward – so it must not have been a sexual assault.

Truth: Of course you did!!! That is a normal response to an acquaintance rape. These are people you are trained to trust with your life. People who would take a bullet for you. People who would kill for you. It takes time for your brain to accept the fact that someone who would lay down their life for you may have sexually assaulted you. In the meantime, it is a normal response to revisit the people, places, and things involved (especially if there was alcohol or drugs) while you try to piece together what happened.

#3. Myth: I didn’t get a rape kit done right away, so I wasn’t really assaulted and no one will believe me.

Truth: Fewer than 20% of rape victims get a medical examination within 24 hours of when a sexual assault occurs. Why? Because most victims of sexual assault don’t realize they have been assaulted until much later.

#4. Myth: Even if I report my sexual assault, nothing will happen to my offender.

Truth: Unfortunately, this can be a true statement. However, 5PALMS is dedicated to educating the military justice system and commands about normal reactions to sexual assault, as well as lobbying for legislative change regarding the Good Soldier Defense and command authority over sexual assault cases. We are committed to making changes!

#5. Myth: I was sexually assaulted by someone in my chain of command, so there isn’t anyone I can report to.

Truth: That is one of the hardest situations to be in, and you can feel completely helpless. Fortunately, we at 5PALMS are fearless advocates when it comes to the Military Justice System, and we are here to support you.

#6. Myth: Everyone in my unit knows that I was sexually assaulted, and now they hate me.

Truth: It’s possible that people know you were involved in an incident. Any victim of a military sexual assault is eligible for a Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) because of their assault (we can help you initiate this). They are also entitled to a Compassionate Reassignment if they chose to stay in the military (we can help you initiate this).


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