Sexual Trauma in the Military

By John Gregory | 4/30/17 8:00 PM

You’d think there would be nothing scarier for a military service member than the dangers of fighting in combat.

But for those veterans who were sexually assaulted during their active duty careers by other military personnel, the thought of talking about that experience is often more terrifying than the prospect of dying in battle. In fact military men and women are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder from having been sexually assaulted than having fought on the front lines, says licensed clinical social worker Dr. Patricia Peacock.

“They are trained to expect combat to be more difficult, they’re trained to expect to see people die,” she says. “You’re not trained to expect someone to assault you.”

Peacock is military sexual trauma coordinator at the Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss how the VA is helping veterans cope with the effects of military sexual trauma (MST) and PTSD.

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As sexual misconduct has become more openly discussed in society in general, the same is true among members of the armed forces. Peacock says that’s being driven in part by the increasing number of women serving in the military.

About a quarter of female service members report having experienced some form of sexual trauma. That can include sexual assault, sexual battery (inappropriate touching of an individual), or sexual harassment.

But it’s not just a problem for women. Peacock says servicemen are also victims of MST, and she says it can be especially troubling for them. She says women are often raised to know that they can be raped and are taught strategies to avoid it. But most men never learn that they too can be victims of sexual assault.

“Women seem to feel ‘I should’ve known this was coming,’” says Peacock, “And the men, there’s more shame and more embarrassment: ‘I should have been able to stop it.’”

Peacock says service members reported more than 6,000 incidents of sexual assault in 2015, the last year for which data is available. Of those, about three-quarters were so-called “unrestricted reports” in which the victims give their names and the assault against them is investigated. Peacock says the remaining “restricted reports” do not result in investigations and the victims remain anonymous.

But in too many instances, active service members won’t disclose a sexual incident because they fear reporting a perpetrator who may be a commander or fellow soldier. Plus there’s the shame and confusion of having been victimized by someone they’ve been trained to depend on and trust.

“Active duty people will leave the service to get away rather than stay and have [the assaults] continue,” says Peacock.

Some vets carry so much shame about what they experienced that they keep it a secret for decades. Peacock says she’s advised hospice workers on how to help end-of-life patients who served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam discuss a sexual assault they endured.

Counseling Available for MST Survivors
Peacock says those who experience MST are likely to develop PTSD, which can lead to a host of other issues, including depression, substance abuse, or chronic pain.

“PTSD is a psychiatric diagnosis,” says Peacock. “MST is an experience, it’s not a diagnosis. It’s someone’s story, and their stories are what led them to develop psychiatric issues.”

She says when vets first seek care at the Lexington VA primary care clinic, they must complete a questionnaire that includes a section about sexual abuse. Those who admit to having experienced MST are referred to Peacock, so she can explain the free of charge counseling resources, support services, addiction treatment, and physical and mental health care available to those vets.

Exploring the trauma through counseling is not easy for veterans, and Peacock admits that many of her clients resent her during the early stages of treatment.

“I tell them that’s perfectly normal,” Peacock says. “Once they get through it, it’s like a burden has been lifted from them because they’re not carrying it alone and they’re not responsible for this. This is something that shouldn’t have happened.”

A crucial tool in the recovery process can be the bravery that is common among America’s fighting men and women, according to one female veteran featured in a VA video about overcoming MST.

“If you had the courage to go through military training and devote your life to your country and be willing to die for your country, you have the courage to do this,” the vet says.

As awareness of MST has increased, Peacock says the armed forces are taking steps to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, and to provide better sensitivity training to military personnel.

“It is being addressed aggressively,” Peacock says. “Every branch of the service has some kind of sexual assault prevention and response program and they are doing everything they can, trying to educate the troops about military sexual trauma and what’s okay and what’s not okay.”