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Raising awareness of military sexual trauma

Keesler AFB Sexual Assault Awareness Month display
A display similar to this display at Keelser Air Force Base will be placed at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and its outpatient clinics in Appleton, Green Bay, Cleveland and Union Grove starting Monday, April 11.

“You are not alone.”

That’s the message the Zablocki VA Health Care System is sending to Veterans who experienced sexual assault or harassment while in the military.

And it’s the basis for events planned to mark April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“I’m hoping the message people take away is that they are not alone,” said Katie Thomas, Military Sexual Trauma coordinator for the Zablocki VA’s outpatient clinics in northeastern Wisconsin. “We want to raise the conversation … and get people connected to the services we offer.”

To raise that awareness, teal flags, formed in the shape of a ribbon, will be displayed outside the Milwaukee VA Medical Center as well as outpatient clinics in Union Grove, Appleton, Green Bay and Cleveland. The displays will be up April 11-29.

The number of flags in each display will represent the number of MST survivors who have been served by each facility. More than 2,000 flags will be planted, including more than 1,200 at the Milwaukee hospital.

In addition, Zablocki will recognize Denim Day on April 27. On that day, dress codes at Zablocki facilities will be relaxed to allow employees to wear denim in support of MST survivors.

Denim Day was born from a sexual assault case in Italy during which the country’s Supreme Court judges determined that a woman who was raped by a driving instructor must have given consent because her jeans were too tight.

Help is available

In addition to raising awareness of MST, the goal of these events is to show those struggling with a past assault or traumatic incident that help is available — no matter when the incident occurred.

“We see a lot of mental health patients who have denied it (their trauma) for years,” Thomas said. “But then one day they decide to tell their provider.”

Todd Witt, MST coordinator the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, said 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men have reported experiencing MST. The actual numbers are probably higher, Thomas said, because some survivors may not report the incidents, even to their doctors or mental health specialists.

And VA health care providers are required to ask Veterans about MST.

“The question gets asked right away during (a Veteran’s) first visit, but they may not report until after they are well into their VA care,” Witt said. “I’ve met with Veterans who, a year later, finally come out and disclose the MST they experienced in Vietnam.”

Sexual trauma and PTSD

MST is closely associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. While many believe PTSD is primarily experienced by Veterans who were in combat, Thomas said sexual trauma is associated with the highest rates of PTSD.

“Studies show that military sexual trauma has higher damage associated with it than sexual trauma outside the military,” she said, noting that the sense of betrayal and shame can be greater because the military reflects an image of cohesiveness, camaraderie and teamwork.

“There’s this feeling that, ‘These are supposed to be my brothers-in-arms. My comrades are supposed to be protecting me,’” she said.

In addition, recovering from PTSD associated with sexual trauma often takes longer and requires more work than other forms of PTSD. “It’s a very damaging type of trauma,” she said.

VA offers numerous programs to help MST survivors, including groups designed specifically for them, Witt said.

“We recognize that it is a specific type of trauma,” he said, noting the groups are “another great resource to help them understand that they're not alone.”

'A pretty scary road'

Thomas said awareness campaigns for Sexual Assault Awareness Month can sometimes make people uncomfortable. But dealing with discomfort is part of the healing process, she said.

“If people are uncomfortable with something, they have to face it,” she said. “We really want people to start having that conversation. … It’s a pretty scary road, and that’s another reason why we want people to know they are not alone.”

“We are trying to get them the services they need,” Witt said.

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