, WA — April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)—an annual campaign aimed at increasing awareness and education about the realities of sexual assault, how often it happens, how to recognize it and how to stop it as well as making sure Veterans who may be struggling from this understand the many available resources the VA offers to help.
This year’s theme, We believe you and we believe in you, rings particularly loud with VA Puget Sound Health Care System Psychologist and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Coordinator, Dr. Alycia Zink, as being the most important message the VA can send Veterans who have experienced MST. “Sexual violence is a very isolating experience and there is still a lot of victim blaming out there, such as what were you doing? What were you wearing at the time of your assault? And all those things are further amplified in the military,” she said. “It is really important that we go out of our way to clearly say that we believe our survivors and that our role is not to question, it’s not to prove, it’s not to investigate. Our role is really to help someone manage what the experience has done to their lives.”
The VA recognizes MST as any unwanted or threatening sexual activity—sexual comments, behaviors, pressures, coercion, assault or rape—experienced during military service. Nearly 10 percent of Veterans (more than 43 percent of women and almost three percent of men) served by VA Puget Sound report having experienced MST when asked by their VA provider; this is nearly double the national reports of five percent of Veterans (about 2 percent of men and 33 percent of women) who have a history of MST.
Because MST carries a unique set of challenges, often providers in the community may not have received specialized training to address it or fully understand the nuances of military culture that add to the complexity. “Even if they are familiar with treating sexual assault, they might not be familiar with some of the more unique aspects of the military sexual trauma experience,” explained Zink. Aspects about MST such as victims who do want to report the incident but do not have the option to report to a civilian police department but instead have to report what happened to them through their chain of command—a chain that the aggressor could very well be a part of—which is essentially their employer, or also the fear of retaliation are all complexities that do not exist in most civilian cases of sexual assault, she explained.
“Within the VA, all staff are expected to complete training on Military Sexual Trauma so that they can be informed and sensitive to the particular needs of our Veterans who have experienced MST and we don’t have that information about community providers,” said Zink. Because the VA is the nation’s largest health care system, Veterans who are ready to receive care for managing and recovering from MST receive evidence-based treatments in an integrated way to address their physical and mental health care needs.
“There can be a broad range of individual responses to experiencing any form of sexual violence and the responses might be depression, PTSD, or physical symptoms like headaches or gastrointestinal distress,” described Zink.
Veterans with MST experiences will be connected to VA specialist based on their individual needs. “We deliver those services in a sensitive way based on the Military Sexual Trauma history,” she added.
As an MST coordinators, Zink’s role and that of her counterpart Julia Sewell, is about outreach and education and is largely centered on advocacy to help Veterans get connected to specialized treatments and care options available at VA Puget Sound care sites, VA Vet Centers and community partners such as or Washington State Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Because sexual assault takes away an individual’s consent, MST Coordinators Zink and Sewell strive to make themselves as available to all Veterans who are ready to receive care or have questions about VA care rather than reaching out to Veterans without their consent. “We really want to make sure Veterans have a voice in what they are being offered and what services are being offered. Julia and I are here to advocate for Veterans to the best of our abilities,” Zink said. “We really take a trauma informed approach, to ensure we are not doing things that would aggravate or revictimize an already vulnerable population. We do not want to take away their voice in a system where they’ve already had they voice not heard.”
Veterans seeking assistance with MST can contact either of VA Puget Sound’s MST coordinators directly: Julia Sewell at (206) 277-1816 or Alycia Zink at (253) 583-3568. Veterans seeking more information about Military Sexual Trauma and eligibility for care can also visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov/MST/.
VA Puget Sound provides comprehensive care to more than 150,000 Veterans across the Pacific Northwest. As the VA’s 5th largest research program, VA Puget Sound has research in virtually every major clinical department, including: TBI and multiple blast exposures; memory improvement and Alzheimer's Disease; PTSD and deployment health; Parkinson’s Disease; diabetes; cancer; substance abuse; lower limb prosthetics; genomics; and Health Services. Additionally, it has seven nationally recognized Centers of Excellence (in areas from limb-loss prevention and prosthetic engineering to primary care education and substance abuse treatment). For more information visit www.pugetsound.va.gov.