Veterans
Douglas Jackson

How military sexual trauma victims can get service-connected

(U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway)

Sexual assault is a mortifying secret for far too many veterans. Although it is not often talked about, Military Sexual Trauma, or "MST" as it is often called, is a significant problem in the military. Some of this is due to hazing, dominance and other unexplained reasons. Regardless of the cause, individuals who are victims of MST can experience various mental health problems.

According to Stephanie Cojocaru, Psy.D., a psychologist in Florida, screening conducted on veterans who are treated through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers and clinics shows that "one in four women and one in 100 men report experiencing [Military Sexual Trauma] while in the military." However, Dr. Cojocaru believes that those rates are much higher because "many service members do not report the [Military Sexual Trauma] at all."


Although the results of the VA screening indicate that women are more likely to suffer from MST than men, Dr. Cojocaru believes that the numbers are more evenly split than they might initially appear. She bases this on a recent Department of Defense study of 21,000 service members who reported MST in the year of the study. Dr. Cojocaru explains that 52 percent of those who suffered MST were men. This means that many veterans, both male and female, have been victims of MST.

Department of Veterans Affairs

MST can affect different people in very different ways. For example, Dr. Cojocaru states that she has "seen many veterans who had been raped in the military … who go on to develop severe depression, anxiety, PTSD or substance abuse." However, she has also "met many veterans who have been sexually assaulted in the military who went on to live seemingly normal lives, being somewhat unscathed by the event." This means that depending on the veteran and circumstance, the outcome can vary widely. Some individuals may be impacted so severely that they have difficulty maintaining employment, in social situations or even functioning in day-to-day life.

Because this is such a problem in the military, the VA has made special regulations to make it easier for MST victims to obtain disability benefits. MST will often present as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although normally the VA requires that veterans provide some corroborative evidence of the event, in cases of MST, the veteran need only show evidence of a change in behavior. Change in behavior can be shown by a request to transfer to another unit, decline in work performance, substance abuse, depression, panic attacks, anxiety without an otherwise discernable cause or unexplained economic or social behavioral changes.

If the veteran can show that there was a change in behavior during military service and there is a current psychiatric diagnosis due to the MST, the VA will grant a service connection. Once the VA decides that the MST is due to military service, the next step is for the VA to rate the severity of the condition. Because the symptoms of MST can vary from person to person, so do the VA's ratings. However, often, a veteran still must appeal the VA's initial rating of MST to eventually obtain a rating as high as is actually deserved.

MST remains an ongoing problem in the military. However, in the meantime, victims of MST should seek treatment immediately and consider applying for VA disability benefits upon discharge. According to Dr. Cojocaru, "a good rule of thumb is to seek help sooner rather than later … because it can more often than not lead to a better prognosis."

This article originally appeared on Military1. Follow @Military1 on Twitter.