PHOENIX -- It’s considered an epidemic that advocates fear is significantly under-reported. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is defined by the Department of Veterans Affairs as any sexual activity against the individual’s will, including sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment.
VA counselors say the numbers are staggering. It’s estimated about a quarter of female veterans experienced MST and about 1 in 100 men.
“The military was my life, my family, and I was afraid to come forward,” said April Wise of Phoenix, who experienced MST after joining the Navy at age 18. She served 13 years, deploying four different occasions. However, during that time, she kept a painful secret.
“In my case, I did not report my sexual trauma. I did not feel comfortable doing it because the individual was my supervisor,” Wise said. “The interesting part was it wasn't just my immediate supervisor; there were two other people who stood there and watched the whole thing and nobody said anything.”
Wise finally sought help in 2007 upon transitioning to civilian life and receiving encouragement from friends and family.
“I came to the VA because I was broken,” Wise said.
Stephanie Dove, the MST coordinator for the Phoenix VA, said she’s seeing a huge increase in people seeking treatment for Military Sexual Trauma.
“I don’t think this is a new problem," Dove said. "I think this is something that is finally, finally coming into awareness."
Despite increased awareness and activism, fear of reporting the crime is still a concern.
“I hear lots of stories from people who were denied a promotion because they reported Military Sexual Trauma, who were alienated by their peers, or their group, their military family because they reported what happened to them,” Dove said.
Dove says symptoms can include PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. However, she said there are a number of programs and free services available to veterans suffering from MST through the VA.
“It can get better,” Dove said. “We have all sorts of treatments now that are helping people have better lives.”
“It’s OK to seek help, it’s OK to tell when someone has done something to violate you,” said Wise, who is now speaking out in hopes of helping others.
“The hero at the end of it is the individual who is the victim that has the courage to come forward,” she said.
For more information on resources available:
Call the Phoenix VA at 602-277-5551 (toll-free 1-800-554-7174) then dial ext. 1-4900 or visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov.