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Addressing Military Sexual Trauma: Legal and Support Measures

Written by The Recovery Village

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD

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Last Updated - 06/30/2024

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Updated 06/30/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Military Sexual Trauma (MST) includes sexual assault and threatening sexual harassment during military service, with higher incidence among women.
  • Legal measures, such as the Military Sexual Trauma bill (H.R.1082), aim to protect MST survivors, but reporting challenges persist due to fear of reprisal.
  • Contributing factors to MST include military culture, fear of reprisal, and structural issues within the military hierarchy.
  • MST has significant psychological, physical, and social impacts on veterans, affecting their well-being and quality of life.
  • Prevention strategies for MST should be multifaceted, addressing cultural, structural, and individual factors.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers various support and treatment resources for MST survivors, including specialized programs and mobile apps.
  • Policy recommendations to combat MST include enhanced training, independent reporting channels, and cultural change initiatives.

Understanding Military Sexual Trauma: Definition, Prevalence, and Legal Context

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) encompasses a range of experiences that include sexual assault and repeated, threatening sexual harassment occurring during military service. The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) recognizes MST as a significant issue, providing treatment to veterans and service members who endure its emotional and physical consequences. The prevalence of MST is difficult to pinpoint due to methodological differences in studies, but it’s understood to be a pervasive issue within the military. A meta-analysis suggests that approximately 16% of military personnel and veterans report MST, with a higher incidence among women (38%) compared to men (4%).

Legal Measures for MST Protection

Legal measures are in place to protect and support MST survivors, with recent legislative efforts aiming to extend eligibility for special compensation to retired survivors of MST, as seen in the proposed amendment to title 10, United States Code, in the Military Sexual Trauma bill (H.R.1082) introduced in 2023. Despite these efforts, survivors often face challenges reporting incidents due to fear of reprisal, such as additional violence, demotions, and social ostracism. The impact of MST is profound, affecting the trust and cohesion within military units and presenting barriers to seeking and engaging in treatment. This complex issue requires continued attention to both prevention and support for those affected.

Understanding the Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma

The prevalence of military sexual trauma (MST) is a critical concern within the United States Armed Forces, with recent studies revealing significant rates among service members. A population-based cohort study of over 20,000 veterans from the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) era reported that 41.5% of females and 4.0% of males experienced MST. These findings are supported by a meta-analysis indicating that the lifetime prevalence of MST among U.S. military personnel and veterans is similarly high.

Furthermore, data from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that 3.9% of male veterans and 41.1% of female veterans have experienced MST, with deployed women facing the same risk as their non-deployed counterparts. In contrast, deployed men had a lower risk compared to non-deployed men. These statistics underscore the gender disparities in MST experiences and highlight the need for continued research and prevention efforts.

Legal Framework for Military Sexual Trauma Protection

The legal landscape addressing military sexual trauma (MST) has evolved to provide more robust protections and a framework for handling allegations and supporting victims. Recent executive orders and legislative acts demonstrate a commitment to reforming how the military addresses sexual offenses. Notably, a significant executive order signed in 2023 altered the procedures for prosecuting crimes such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. This order aims to ensure more independence in the prosecution process, distancing it from the chain of command which may have previously influenced judicial outcomes.

Ongoing Legislative Efforts for MST Survivors

Legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2024 continues to authorize Department of Defense (DOD) mental health programs, which include support for service members affected by MST. Moreover, the introduction of H.R. 1082 in 2023 sought to extend eligibility for certain compensation to retired survivors of MST, reflecting an ongoing effort to provide long-term support for victims. The implementation of specialized trial counsels for prosecuting sexual assault cases within the military marks a pivotal change, aiming to enhance the impartiality and independence of military justice.

Specialized Support for MST Survivors

Efforts such as the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023 also illustrate bipartisan initiatives to improve support at the Veterans Affairs (VA) for veterans who are MST survivors. With these measures, the legal framework surrounding MST is becoming more victim-centric, providing clearer definitions and stronger protections for those serving in the military.

Analyzing the Contributing Factors to Military Sexual Trauma

Fear of Reprisal and Reporting Challenges

Several factors contribute to the occurrence of MST, creating an environment where such incidents are likely to occur and challenging to report. These factors include fear of reprisal, potential additional violence, demotions, and unwanted job reassignments upon reporting. Victims may also face ostracism, isolation, and a loss of support, which can disrupt unit cohesion and significantly impact trust within the military community.

Impact on Trust and Support Structures

Survivors often contend with the disintegration of their support structure, which is particularly detrimental in the military where trust and reliance on fellow service members are paramount. The necessity to continue working and living alongside perpetrators exacerbates the trauma, making it difficult for victims to escape the effects of MST. Studies have shown that military sexual harassment and discrimination can lead to long-term impairments in life functioning and increased disability rates, even decades later.

Understanding the Role of Military Culture in Sexual Trauma

Gender Roles and Acceptance of Violence

Military culture has been identified as a significant factor contributing to the occurrence of military sexual trauma (MST). Research indicates that certain elements of military culture, such as traditional gender roles, sexism, and acceptance of violence, can create an environment where sexual assault and harassment are more likely to occur. The prevalence of MST is alarmingly high, with studies showing that the U.S. Marines and Navy report the highest levels of sexual assault, and the majority of victims hold the lowest rank in the military hierarchy. This suggests a power dynamic that may discourage reporting and seeking justice.

Unit Cohesion and Reporting Fear

Another cultural aspect is the concept of unit cohesion, which is highly valued in the military. Survivors of MST often fear the consequences of reporting the trauma, such as ostracism, demotions, or reassignments, which can lead to isolation and loss of support from peers. This fear is compounded by the need to trust and rely on fellow service members, which can be severely undermined when the perpetrator is someone within the same unit. The military’s emphasis on cohesion and loyalty can thus inadvertently protect perpetrators and silence victims.

Underreporting Among Men

Studies also highlight the underreporting of MST among men, which is attributed to the stigma and the potential threat to their military careers. The traditional masculine ethos of the military may discourage male victims from speaking out, further perpetuating the cycle of trauma and silence. 

Structural and Systemic Contributors to Military Sexual Trauma

Power Imbalance and Proximity to Perpetrators

The military’s hierarchical structure often results in a power imbalance that can be exploited, leading to MST. This is exacerbated when victims must continue to work and live alongside their perpetrators, sometimes depending on them for safety in life-threatening situations. Such proximity can render escaping the effects of MST nearly impossible, causing long-term psychological and physical impairments. A study cited by the National Center for PTSD found that Vietnam-era women veterans experienced significant long-term impairment and increased disability rates due to military sexual harassment and discrimination.

Barriers to Care for MST Survivors

Despite the establishment of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) by the Department of Defense to address MST, systemic issues persist. Barriers to care for MST survivors include institutional betrayal, mental health stigma, and unrecognized PTSD symptoms. Gender-specific barriers further complicate access to treatment, with evidence suggesting that women veterans face higher odds of having MST-related claims denied compared to their male counterparts. These structural challenges underscore the need for comprehensive reforms within military institutions to effectively address and prevent MST.

Comprehensive Impact of Military Sexual Trauma on Veterans

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant issue that affects service members, with a profound impact on their psychological, physical, and social well-being. 

Mental Health Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is recognized as a significant public health issue due to its prevalence and the profound mental health consequences it can have on service members. Studies have consistently shown that individuals who experience MST are at a higher risk for a range of psychological conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. 

MST and Depression

Research published in BMC Public Health reveals that a significant portion of individuals who experienced MST reported symptoms of depression, with a notable difference between genders. The study found that 31% of women and 18% of men who experienced MST showed depressive symptom scores meeting the criteria for symptoms of depression. Furthermore, the severity and accumulation of MST experiences were linked to an escalation in mental health issues.

MST and PTSD

Another study from the National Center for PTSD discusses the long-term impact of MST, including the risk of continued impairment and increased rates of disability, even decades after the event. The study also touches on the challenges MST survivors face in seeking and continuing treatment, such as institutional betrayal, stigma, and not recognizing symptoms as PTSD.

Physical Health Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is not only a significant mental health concern but also has profound physical health implications for survivors. Studies have documented a range of physical ailments associated with MST, including increased risk for the following:

  • Gynecological problems
  • Urological problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Pulmonary problems
  • Neurological problems
  • cardiovascular problems 

Research among women veterans reports these conditions as more prevalent among MST survivors compared to those without such experiences.

Decreased Physical Functioning

Furthermore, the physical impact of MST extends to overall quality of life and functioning. For instance, military sexual harassment has been linked to decreased physical functioning, which is a crucial indicator of quality of life and successful aging. Survivors may face a higher rate of disability and impairment in life functioning, a consequence that can persist for decades after the trauma. Data from studies on Vietnam-era women veterans highlight the long-term physical impact of MST.

Exploring the Social and Relational Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma

The social and relational impact of military sexual trauma (MST) is profound and far-reaching, affecting not only the survivors themselves but also their relationships and interactions within society. 

MST-Related Isolation and Relationship Problems

Survivors may experience difficulties in trusting others, which can lead to isolation and challenges in forming and maintaining personal relationships. The stigma associated with MST can further exacerbate these social challenges, as victims may fear judgment or disbelief from peers and superiors.

MST-Related Workplace Challenges

Research has indicated that MST survivors often face significant obstacles in their social environments, including in the workplace and within the military community. The impact of MST is particularly complex due to the close-knit nature of military units, where social cohesion is paramount. When trust is broken by instances of sexual trauma, the very fabric of these units can be disrupted, leading to a breakdown in team dynamics and morale.

Further Social Impacts of MST

The social stigma and the potential for re-traumatization through inadequate institutional responses can hinder recovery and reintegration into military and civilian life. The consequences extend to family and intimate relationships, where survivors may struggle with intimacy issues, potentially leading to strained partnerships and familial discord.

Strategies and Solutions for Addressing Military Sexual Trauma

Addressing military sexual trauma (MST) requires a multi-faceted approach, as indicated by recent research and policy developments. The prevalence of MST remains a significant concern, with more than 20,000 service members experiencing sexual assault in a single year and many more subjected to sexual harassment. The Department of Defense (DoD) has implemented strategies based on the recommendations of independent commissions, such as establishing roles and responsibilities for Special Trial Counsel and setting training requirements for prosecutors handling MST cases. Additionally, the DoD has launched initiatives to bolster prevention, increase reporting, and promote advocacy for a safer military community.

Remaining Areas in MST Strategies the Need Bold Action

Key findings from RAND research highlight the need for bold action to prevent the persistence of sexual assault and harassment in the military. Most incidents go unreported, and there are gaps in the prevention infrastructure. RAND’s recommendations emphasize the importance of addressing these issues to mitigate the negative consequences for the military. Overall, the strategies and solutions for addressing MST involve comprehensive action at both the DoD and VA levels, including policy reform, enhanced support systems, and a commitment to cultural change within the military.

Effective Prevention Strategies Against Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST) remains a critical issue within the armed forces, necessitating robust prevention strategies to ensure the safety and well-being of service members. 

A Multifaceted and Systemic Approach Against MST

An analysis of various sources reveals that prevention efforts must be multifaceted and systemic, addressing cultural, structural, and individual factors. Research indicates that primary prevention strategies should include both universal interventions for all service members and targeted interventions for those at higher risk of either experiencing or perpetrating sexual violence.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has developed comprehensive strategies, such as the Principles of Prevention, which align with DoD Instruction 1020.03 on harassment prevention and response. These principles provide a framework for leaders to understand the components of prevention and their linkage to sexual harassment. 

Addressing Reporting Fear in MST Incidents

Effective prevention also involves addressing the fear of reprisal and ensuring that service members can report incidents without negative consequences to their careers or personal safety. This requires a transformation of military culture to one that does not tolerate sexual violence and supports survivors unequivocally. Furthermore, as highlighted in the VA Military Sexual Trauma Research, there is a need for continuous improvement in screening, detection, and secondary prevention efforts, particularly for male veterans who are less studied in this context.

Support and Treatment Resources for Military Sexual Trauma Survivors

Survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) have access to a range of support systems and treatment options to aid in their recovery:

  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers MST-related services at any VA health care facility to veterans and most former service members, including those who received an Other Than Honorable discharge or served for fewer than two years. Moreover, eligibility for MST-related care does not require the standard length of service requirements that apply to other VA care.
  • The VA also provides a free, secure, and private self-help mobile app designed to support the well-being of MST survivors. 
  • The VA’s Veterans Crisis Line (Call: 988, Press 1) offers immediate help. 
  • Survivors can also find a VA MST Coordinator to assist with connecting to care teams via telehealth technologies.
  • The VA offers specialized programs like the Sexual Trauma Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) launched by Tricare. 
  • The VA’s educational tools and articles are also accessible to both survivors and providers to learn more about MST and the VA’s free MST-related services.
  • The VA offers restorative self-care retreats and has resources dedicated to coping strategies for survivors. 

For comprehensive assistance, veterans can contact their nearest VA medical center and speak to an MST coordinator. To address immediate housing needs, homeless or at-risk veterans can receive support through dedicated VA services.

Strategic Policy Recommendations to Combat Military Sexual Trauma

Addressing military sexual trauma (MST) requires a multifaceted policy approach that emphasizes accountability, prevention, victim support, and independent oversight. Recent legislative and executive actions, such as the H.R.1082 and executive orders signed by President Biden, have begun to address these areas by redefining MST within the legal framework and transferring decision-making authority from commanders to specialized military prosecutors.

Further policy recommendations include:

  • Enhanced Training: Implement comprehensive training programs focused on MST prevention and bystander intervention for all military personnel.
  • Independent Reporting Channels: Establish secure and confidential reporting mechanisms that encourage victims to come forward without fear of retaliation or career jeopardy.
  • Victim Support Services: Increase funding for victim care and support services, including mental health resources tailored to the unique needs of MST survivors.
  • Overhaul of Judicial Processes: Continue to remove the handling of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, ensuring impartiality and fairness in the military justice system.
  • Data Transparency: Mandate the regular publication of detailed reports on MST incidents, prosecutions, and outcomes to foster transparency and trust in the system.
  • Cultural Change Initiatives: Spearhead campaigns to shift military culture towards zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and promote respect and equality.

These policy changes, combined with ongoing evaluation and adaptation, are crucial for creating a military environment where sexual trauma is not tolerated and survivors are fully supported.

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