MILITARY sexual trauma (MST) refers to sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that happened while a veteran was in the military.

MST is defined by law, Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D, as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a mental health professional employed by the (VA), resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the veteran was serving on active duty, active duty for training or inactive duty training.”

Sexual harassment is further defined as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character.”

MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a condition in and of itself. Veterans may react in a wide variety of ways and not every MST survivor will have long-term difficulties following the experience. For some veterans, though, experiences of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health, work, relationships and everyday life even many years later.

Mental-health consequences of MST include PTSD, depression and substance use problems. Physical difficulties may include gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, sexual dysfunction and headaches.

Both men and women have reported experiencing MST, at equal levels. However, it is believed MST is under-reported, mostly due to victims’ worry they will be blamed, or a fear of reprisals.

The Manchester VA is a safe place to start the healing process if you have experienced military sexual trauma. The VA does MST screening for all veterans seen for health care, and provides all care for mental and physical health conditions related to MST free of charge.

Who can get help?

Veterans may be able to get MST-related care at the VA even if they don’t qualify for other VA services. For example, there are no length-of-service or income requirements to receive MST-related care. They don’t need to have a service-connected disability rating, they don’t need to have reported the MST or have proof that it happened, and they can be other than honorably discharged if they receive approval from the Veterans Benefits Administration regional office.

What services are offered?

The VA offers confidential mental health services for both male and female veterans who have experienced MST:

Outpatient counseling services via the VA’s community-based Vet Centers

Individual and group outpatient psychotherapy

Inpatient programs for acute care needs such as psychiatric emergencies and stabilization, or medication adjustment

Residential programs targeting rehabilitation, recovery, health maintenance, improved quality of life and community reintegration

Treatment for associated mental-health conditions, such as PTSD, depression and substance abuse problems.

How does a vet get help?

In an emergency, call 911.

If you are a veteran in crisis, or are concerned about one, you can connect with the VA Veterans Crisis Line responders for confidential help. Many of them are veterans themselves. This service is free and available 24/7. To connect with a Veterans Crisis Line responder, call 1-800-273-8255, then press 1. If you have hearing loss, call 1-800-799-4889. Or text 838255 or go to https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat.

To get other help, veterans can go to the nearest emergency room or the Manchester VA Medical Center. It doesn’t matter what your discharge status is or whether you’re enrolled in VA health care.

If you have a VA primary care provider, talk to that professional about what you’ve been through. All our primary care providers are trained in MST and can help you figure out if you have related issues. Your provider will offer treatment and support as needed.

If you don’t have a VA primary care provider, or if you prefer to speak directly with Manchester VA Medical Center’s MST coordinator, call 603-624-4366, ext. 2298, and ask to speak to psychologist and Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator Susan Giurleo, Ph.D.

If you’d prefer to receive MST-related care outside of a medical setting, you can get free confidential counseling, alcohol and drug assessments, and other support at the VA’s community Vet Centers; contact the Manchester Vet Center in Hooksett at 603-629-3209.

What is the Clothesline Project?

Understanding the need to destabilize stereotypes about MST victims, the Manchester VA is hosting its annual Clothesline Project exhibit. It is an initiative to bring awareness to MST using a visual display to raise awareness of military sexual trauma, sexual assault and sexual abuse. Veterans design T-shirts that are hung side by side, bearing witness to the impact sexual violence has had on the veterans’ lives. The exhibit illustrates and celebrates strength in survival, and provides an avenue through art to courageously “break the silence” that often surrounds MST experiences.

This year, the Manchester VA’s Clothesline Project exhibit has expanded to include 70 entries. Anyone can visit the exhibit which will be on display from Monday, April 8, through Friday, April 26. The exhibit will be open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily in the Primary Care Lobby at the Mountain Entrance of the Manchester VA Medical Center located at 718 Smyth Road.

Veterans with questions about medical care and other services at the Manchester VA can send their questions, which could be the basis for a future column, to Kristin.Pressly@va.gov with the subject “Ask the VA.” The veterans will remain anonymous.

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