What to Know About Sexual Assault Trauma in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 24, 2022
4 min read

Serving in the military can result in lasting trauma. In recent years, the U.S. Armed Forces and Department of Veterans Affairs have taken note of the sexual assault in the armed forces and its effects on veterans. In 2020, the Department of Defense received over 7,800 reports of sexual trauma in military personnel.

Experiencing sexual trauma can have lasting negative physical and mental consequences. Getting help to address the trauma and get support for recovery can help you learn to live with the memories and avoid harmful behaviors that you may have developed as a coping mechanism. 

The military considers any sexual assault or sexual harassment received during military service to be military sexual trauma (MST). Some sexual assault examples include:

  • Pressure or coercion into sexual activities, such as with threats of negative treatment or with promises of better treatment based on willingness to engage in sex
  • Nonconsensual sexual contact or activities, including sexual contact while asleep or intoxicated
  • Being physically forced to have sex
  • Being nonconsensually touched or grabbed in a sexual way, including during "hazing" experiences
  • Unwanted sexual comments or threatening comments about your body or sexual activities 
  • Unwanted or threatening sexual advances

Many incidents of MST happen between service members. In addition, some service members experience assault from civilians, enemy combatants, friends, family members, or strangers. Any incident that happens to a service member is considered MST, regardless of who the perpetrator is.

Sexual trauma is very common among military veterans. The VA asks every veteran seen for medical care if they experienced sexual trauma during their time of service. Based on the data collected, the VA estimates that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men experienced some form of sexual trauma. The actual numbers may be higher.

Sexual assault in veterans has the same emotional effects as sexual assault among civilians. Veterans who experienced MST may experience common sexual assault symptoms, including:

  • Disturbing memories or nightmares
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Depression or feelings of numbness
  • Use of alcohol or other drugs to avoid negative feelings
  • Feelings of being isolated from other people
  • Anger, irritability, or other strong emotions
  • Self-doubt, self-blame, or decreased self-esteem
  • Difficulties with sleep
  • Physical health problems

Some veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may be related to MST. Symptoms of PTSD can be similar to the effects of MST, including flashbacks, strong emotions, and hypervigilance. PTSD can arise due to other events during military service as well as sexual trauma.

People who have experienced sexual trauma may be at risk for behavioral complications, including:

  • Self-harm
  • Suicide
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Dissociative behaviors

Many veterans who have experienced MST benefit from therapy to help manage the emotional effects. Finding a therapist who is familiar with treating sexual assault survivors may be beneficial, but you can work with a qualified counselor who makes you feel comfortable. 

There are several evidence-based therapy models that are effective for helping with sexual trauma. 

Psychodynamic psychotherapy: This method of psychotherapy evolved from psychoanalysis. The focus is often on discussing thoughts and emotions, past experiences, and interpersonal relationships and identifying behavior patterns. There's an emphasis on building the relationship between the client and therapist to create an atmosphere with high levels of trust. Sessions offer the opportunity to work through difficult feelings with a trained, trusted professional.

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavior therapy draws connections between feelings and the behaviors you might engage in as a response to your feelings. In a trauma-focused model, the therapist will guide you through discussing traumatic events. The next steps include delving into your feelings about the events, understanding how they affect your behavior, and strategizing ways to respond constructively to trauma-driven emotions.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a therapy method designed to alleviate the distress you feel due to traumatic memories. The therapist moves their fingers back and forth in front of your face and asks you to follow the motion with your eyes. As you do this, the therapist will ask you to recount the traumatic event. Next, the therapist will ask you to shift to discussing more pleasant thoughts or memories while they change their hand movements. The overall effect is to reduce the level of distress you feel when recounting traumatic memories. Ideally, over time, memories of trauma won't trigger negative feelings or behaviors.

The VA offers free treatment to veterans for mental and physical health conditions related to MST. You may be eligible for this service even if you don't qualify for other care from the VA. Some veterans who have an other-than-honorable discharge can access MTS treatment through the VA. There is an MST coordinator at every VA center, and they can help you get the care you need.

You may be entitled to free mental and physical health care related to MST through a VA health center or VA community-based outpatient clinic. Counseling is available at Vet Centers. You may also be eligible for inpatient care at a VA-run program.

MST-related care at the VA is confidential. You can access care whether you reported the sexual trauma at the time it happened or not.

Military sexual trauma can have lingering mental and physical health effects. Getting appropriate care can help you manage your emotions and recover from trauma. You can contact the VA for assistance or seek treatment with the therapist of your choice. For help, you can also contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network online or at 1-800-656-HOPE for immediate assistance.