Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Explained
Published December 11, 2020
It’s not easy for any veteran to admit that you have been sexually harassed or assaulted while in the military, and even harder to ask for help with the resulting trauma. In this article, we’ll explain what military sexual trauma (“MST”) is, how and when it manifests itself, and how to successfully present a claim to the VA for disability benefits related to MST.
What is Military Sexual Trauma?
The VA uses the term “military sexual trauma” (MST) to refer to sexual assault or harassment against a service member during their service period. MST includes any sexual activity or threats of sexual activity directed at a soldier against their will. Examples include:
- Being pressured or coerced into sexual activities, such as with threats of negative treatment if you refuse to cooperate or with promises of better treatment in exchange for sex
- Someone having sexual contact with you without your consent, such as when you were asleep or intoxicated
- Being physically forced to have sex
- Being touched in a sexual way that made you uncomfortable
- Repeated comments about your body or sexual activities
- Threatening and unwanted sexual advances
Any service member can experience MST, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or military rank. Sometimes the offending party is a fellow soldier, and sometimes, a superior officer. Sometimes the offender is a civilian.
Like other psychological or physical trauma types, MST can cause severe mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, substance abuse, and many others.
There can be a significant lag time, many years in fact, from the time of the MST incident to the time when your mental health symptoms began to manifest themselves. Symptoms you may experience could include:
- Disturbing memories or nightmares
- Deep-seated fear or discomfort in dealing with the same gender as the assailant
- Chronic anxiety and panic attacks
- A need to avoid people
- Difficulty feeling safe
- Feelings of depression or numbness
- Problems with alcohol or other drugs
- Feeling isolated from other people
- Problems with anger, irritability, or other strong emotions
- Issues with sleep
- Physical health problems
Are Disability Benefits Available for Military Sexual Trauma?
Yes. Upon sufficient proof, an MST claim can be accepted by the VA, and disability payments are awarded similarly to other types of mental disorder claims.
How Can I Prove an MST Claim?
The proof requirements for an MST claim are the same as for all VA mental disorder claims. Most MSTs lead to a diagnosis of PTSD and therefore must be handled as PTSD claims.
There are two essential parts to an MST claim. The veteran claimant must present “Credible Evidence” that the traumatic event occurred and meet the “Nexus Requirement” connecting the event to the resulting symptoms. This may seem complicated, but it is not an impossible task.
A PTSD claim (and thus also MST claims) has a unique requirement, which does not apply to other VA mental health disorder claims, specifically, the Credible Evidence of the Occurrence of the Trauma requirement (“Credible Evidence requirement”). That is, a Veteran with a PTSD claim must come forward with evidence other than their own testimony or statements showing that the alleged in-service trauma actually occurred.
The best evidence of the occurrence of trauma is a contemporary military report or documentation of the trauma. However, the VA understands that this evidence may not exist. Many victims of MST have kept quiet about the incident due to embarrassment or shame of their assault and thus failed to make an immediate/contemporaneous official military report. Because the VA understands this reality, it allows MST claimants to satisfy the Credible Evidence requirement by other means, so-called “markers,” evidencing the victim’s emotional reaction to the MST:
Some examples of markers are:
- Records from official sources of law enforcement of rape crisis centers or mental health counseling centers
- Hospitals or medical treatment records for sexually transmitted diseases at or near the time of MST
- Statements from family members, roommates, clergy members, or friends to whom the victim might have confided about the MST
- Military personnel records showing a decline in behavior or performance soon after the MST
- Medical records showing irregular eating patterns, or noticeable weight gain or loss soon after the MST
In addition, an MST claimant must show a nexus or causal link between the MST and their current mental illness, the so-called “Nexus Requirement.” Only a written opinion from a mental health practitioner (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist) can satisfy the Nexus Requirement. The VA typically schedules a claimant for a psychological examination at one of its mental health facilities, and the examiner will prepare a report. At these examinations, the claimant must give the examiner the complete history of the trauma and a full account of their current symptoms.
At your psychological examination, do not minimize or play down your symptoms. You may have been trying to “tough it out” ever since the traumatic event occurred. By this time, your trauma symptoms are obviously severe enough that you cannot ignore them anymore. During your examination is time to lay it all on the table, as horrible as the symptoms may seem. Talk to those closest to you about things they have observed in your behavior also. They may be seeing patterns in your behavior that you aren’t aware of.
What do I do next?
You don’t need to continue ignoring the psychological effects of Military Sexual Trauma. Disability benefits are available through the VA for veterans suffering from MST. If you need to initiate a new claim, contact a VSO in your area to help you prepare your claim, keeping in mind the information above.
Our office works with many veterans pursuing PTSD due to MST cases. If you have been denied your PTSD claim, or you feel you were underrated, please contact Veterans Law Group.