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Published January 24, 2014, 01:29 PM

Coming forward: Outreach, education help survivors of military sexual trauma

FARGO – When “Trish” joined the Air Force 25 years ago, she was planning a career in the military. But her time was cut short by a sexual predator within the ranks.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO – When “Trish” joined the Air Force 25 years ago, she was planning a career in the military. But her time was cut short by a sexual predator within the ranks.

The North Dakota veteran, who spoke to The Forum on the condition of anonymity, says it was a “well-known fact” that the man assaulted both men and women in various ways.

“In my case, he gradually broke me down by criticizing me and destroying every aspect of my life,” she says. “It ended up destroying my marriage, it had a huge impact on my children, and I basically left the military early because of it.”

There’s no way to know exactly how many service members have survived military sexual trauma, but Trish is one of many.

Veterans Affairs screens everyone who seeks health care services at their facilities for military sexual trauma, or MST, which refers to sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment of a military member during his or her service but not necessarily while on duty.

Those questionnaires show that about one in five servicewomen and about one in 100 servicemen have been affected by MST.

Susan Thompson, the military sexual trauma coordinator for the Fargo VA Health Care System, says an average of 12 veterans a month answer “yes” on the screening, indicating they’ve been sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or both.

But those numbers only reflect the reported rate of MST among veterans who choose to seek VA health care and don’t necessarily indicate the actual rate of sexual assault and harassment among all members of the U.S. military.

Heather Mattson, Thompson’s counterpart in the North Dakota National Guard, says no matter how many people come forward, and how long it’s been since it occurred, it’s her job to make sure they receive the treatment they need.

In order to do that, they have to feel comfortable reporting.

TAKING A STAND

Trish’s situation got worse before it got better. Only within the past three months has she learned to cope with the after-effects of the abuse she suffered.

When she spoke up about what was happening, she says she was given the brush-off from her superiors and her perpetrator tried to find ways to get her in trouble.

“The message from the higher-ups in my unit was, ‘If you talk about this, you will get a dishonorable (discharge),’ ” she says.

Thompson and Mattson are trying to change that message.

Both head outreach and education efforts. Thompson does individual and group therapy. Mattson manages a 24/7 help line.

“I’m always on call and ready to respond to a report of MST,” she says.

Leadership’s getting involved, too.

Col. Giselle “Gigi” Wilz, chief of staff for the North Dakota National Guard, says 30 years ago, MST was rarely discussed.

“I think the difference between then and now is victims are coming forward, we’ve reduced the tolerance level at all levels of the military, and we’re more focused on training soldiers and airmen that it’s not a part of who we are as an organization,” she says.

Wilz says involving leadership in training programs is key.

Both she and Mattson say more service members report a previous case of MST after training.

“When a company commander, or a battalion commander, or even a brigade commander stands up and says, ‘This has no place in my organization. I’m going to weed the people who are perpetrators out of this organization, and I’m going to take care of the victims,’ that really kind of empowers people that have been victims to come forward because they start believing that we’ll do something about it,” she says.

The hope is that not only will changing the climate get more people the help they need, but that it’ll eventually lead to true deterrence.

“The more educated we are, and the more aware we are, the more sensitive everybody is about it, and I think it’ll be less likely to happen,” Thompson says.

But fears remain.

The fears that keep service members from reporting trauma are similar to the fears of civilians, but there are some differences that add layers of pressure.

Wilz explains:

“We spend a lot of time in the military training soldiers to be tough, to be individual but part of a team, and I think the stigma comes from everything from embarrassment to, ‘I’m in the military, how could this happen to me? Why couldn’t I protect myself?’ ”

If the perpetrator’s also enlisted, a sexual assault can affect the whole team, breaking the trust necessary in combat situations.

“From a military perspective, it erodes our readiness,” she says.

GETTING HELP

Since leaving the military a few months shy of completing her three-year tour, Trish has had recurring nightmares and health problems, made several moves and spent time in homeless shelters.

“I did anything I could to get away from the pain,” she says.

Her crushing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms reached a critical point about a year ago at Stand Down, a VA event to provide services to homeless veterans.

“All of a sudden, I was in a sea of green, and it started all coming back to me, 25 years later,” she says.

According to Veterans Affairs, sexual assault is more likely to cause PTSD symptoms like Trish’s than most other types of trauma, including combat.

MST is associated with depression, substance abuse, headaches, gastrointestinal difficulties, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain and chronic fatigue.

Mattson, the Guard’s sexual assault response coordinator, points out that coverage is available for survivors of MST.

“If a service member is sexually assaulted when they’re on a duty status, we can pay for anything that comes up related to that sexual assault,” she says.

Since connecting with Thompson at the Fargo VA, Trish has made a “complete turnaround.”

Although it’s difficult to talk about what she’s been through, she’s found a space where she feels comfortable doing so.

“You feel like you’re valued, and that you don’t have to let the sexual assault control your life any longer,” she says.

Slowly, the trauma from her past is losing control over her present and future.

“Like Susan (Thompson) tells us, ‘Each time you go through another part of this, and each time you start making yourself be respected and heard, you’re going to get healthier,’ and that is exactly what’s happening,” Trish says.

She doesn’t want her story to make young men and women afraid of joining the military, but she does encourage them to equip themselves with information about MST and the resources available to them.

And, if they do experience MST, to address it right away.

“Don’t wait like I did, because the damage to my children and my family and the isolation it has caused is horrendous, and it doesn’t need to be that way,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

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