Understanding the Mental, Physical, and Functional Consequences of Experiencing Military Sexual Trauma
by Jessica Hughes, PLPC
Marine Corps Veteran, honorable discharge at rank E4, 4yrs, active duty
The death of Private First-Class Vanessa Guillen, stationed at the Fort Hood Army base, in April of 2020 has brought national attention to the capacity of sexual assault and harassment on service members. In March of 2023, Private Ana Basaldua Ruiz, also stationed at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, was found dead after reporting her experiences of military sexual harassment to family members. Notably, sexual violence in the military occurs within the context of the history of long-established cultural norms. These once male-only and now heavily male-dominated armed forces have been called out by scholars for their appropriation of hyper-masculinity and promotion of notions that the ideal service member is strong, non-emotional, aggressive, and dominant.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is sexual contact marked by a use of force, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority and/or rank, and instances in which the person did not or is unable to consent Effects of Military Sexual Trauma | VA Mental Health - Mental Health. The Department of Defense (DoD) fiscal year 2021 annual reports revealed reported occurrences from about 8.4 percent of active-duty women and 1.5 percent of active-duty men; an estimated 35,875 active-duty service members that year (about 19,255 women and 16,620 men; DOD_Annual_Report_on_Sexual_Assault_in_the_Military_FY2021.pdf (sapr.mil). It is important to note that these statistics do not include unreported assaults or assaults from those not serving active-duty contract types (i.e., reserves, recently discharged, National Guard).
Most people experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives; including but certainly not limited to physical or sexual assault, crime victimization, serious medical injury, death of a spouse, sibling, or parent, and military combat exposure. The way humans respond to and heal from these traumatic events varies. MST and post-MST revictimization are preventable service-connected perils that produce various dangerous health consequences among U.S. servicemembers. MST is comparable to combat trauma in that they both have been associated with an
increased risk of physical, mental, and functional ramifications.
When analyzing the associations between MST and adverse mental health outcomes, researchers found high reports of anxiety, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders among veteran survivors. Commonly reported physical health conditions for survivors of MST include pelvic and menstrual pain, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, hypothyroidism, and chronic fatigue. These individuals are also at increased risk for positive HIV status and cardiovascular problems such as obesity, smoking, or a sedentary lifestyle. Functionally, sexual dysfunction, low sexual satisfaction, or sexual dissatisfaction were most reported among survivors of this crime.
Many major theories in social science and prevention science work can help make sense of the complexities surrounding MST and MST-related aftermath. Military rape subculture and how aspects of the military culture precipitate an environment where sexual assault thrives, where victimized service members are denied pertinent and fitting protection and justice, and where surviving veterans struggle to find adequate support services can be addressed through several existing theoretical perspectives. By improving our understanding of post-MST experiences, we may begin to acknowledge responses to sexual violence including advocacy, activism, coping,
post-traumatic growth, and survival techniques.
JENNIFER EULBERG, MA, LPC
Welcome Jennifer, our new blogger!
Jennifer is a counselor at Sandhill who specializes in depression, self-esteem, and grief & loss. Get to know Jennifer as she shares her perspectives on life, contemplates value themes, and offers gentle encouragement.
THANK YOU to Stefanie Pisarkiewicz, LPC for her blog contributions from November 2014 - February 2019!