Healing after MST can take time. No matter how long it’s been, VA is here to help.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. During SAAM and year-round, VA works to raise awareness of its resources for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST).
MST includes any sexual assault or harassment that occurred during military service in which you are involved against your will or when unable to say no. People of all genders, ages, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and branches of service have experienced MST. Like other types of trauma, MST can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later.
MST survivors — we believe you, and we believe in you.
Two Veterans share their stories to help fellow Veterans heal.
Survivor Story | Female Veteran
For over twenty years, I thought I was to blame. I wouldn’t allow myself to consider that someone else’s anger, illness, and need for power were the reason I was assaulted.
I was a 24 year-old woman in the Army. Who would believe me if I spoke up?
I never told anyone until 5 years ago. I couldn’t sleep. The memories and nightmares were constant, I was drinking every day to forget what happened all those years ago. My family had no idea how much I hated myself.
I came to the VA because I saw online that other military women posted how VA helped women who were sexually assaulted in the military. I was so afraid to tell anyone what happened. I started crying as soon as I got in the office and didn’t stop for 30 minutes. The therapist was kind and let me know I was okay. She told me I was safe. I was no longer alone.
For over 20 years, the only thing I felt was loneliness. I started talking with my therapist about what happened in sessions. Together, we processed the assault and the feelings of guilt and shame I had. We used a treatment called Cognitive Processing Therapy. The beliefs I had been carrying – about why it happened to me and it being my fault – slowly became clearer.
It wasn’t my fault. I did nothing wrong and nothing to deserve what happened. I didn’t need to keep punishing myself because I wasn’t a bad person. I stopped drinking, and met with a doctor who helped me find a medication to help with the nightmares. Slowly, I took control and took back my life. I am a work in progress, and I know if I can do it, so can you.
Survivor Story | Male Veteran
Before talking about my MST, I was very angry at everyone. It was to the point where I forgot what happened, and my mind continued to betray me.
Not remembering why, I hated myself. I felt so angry, so isolated, so alone. I could not control my anger. I started lashing out at others and started to do things I should not do. I trusted no one and was in such a dark place in my life. I worked at a prison for 6 years, witnessing assaults, brutal beatings, stabbings, and so many other terrible things. I kept getting worse and worse with no idea why.
One day at my PCP appointment, I was asked some routine health history questions. One of them was, “while serving in the Military were you sexually assaulted?” The question quickly triggered my thoughts. Like a lightbulb turning on, the memories of what happened flashed into my head. I did not report it that day. I went home, broke down, and asked to be seen by Behavioral Health the next day.
Everything flood me all over again – the guilt, shame, hatred, anger, and betrayal. The thoughts I should not have returned, everything I suppressed. I knew I had to say something, I could not hold this in any longer. I knew if I continued to bury the feelings and memories, I would end up in prison or worse.
I made the decision to ask for help, worked with my counselor, left the job that continued to retraumatize me, and started a new career. Since then, I have been able to release the guilt, shame, hatred, anger, and betrayal. I am in a position where I can help people that felt the same way I did. It’s important to let them know they are not alone and what they are feeling is normal after this happens.
If you want to get better and are open to working on it, even though it seems terrifying, you will overcome this.
Take the Next Step
If you are having any current difficulties related to MST, VA is here to support you in whatever way will help you best — from learning more about how MST affects people, to treatment that helps you cope with how MST is impacting your life currently, or if you prefer, treatment that involves discussing your experiences in more depth.
Learn more about MST and explore VA's MST-related resources .
Story contributed by: Bj Vaughn, LCSW and MST Survivors