It is hard to estimate the number of military servicemen who have suffered from sexual trauma during active duty. Reliable statistics simply don’t exist. VA records show that one in every 100 male veterans treated by the VA reported being sexually traumatized by fellow servicemen during their military careers. Given that 18 million of the 24.5 million veterans don’t use the VA health system and that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported, the numbers are undoubtedly much higher.
The Stigma of Military Sexual Trauma
Military sexual trauma, defined as any unwanted sexual activity, including harassment, sodomy, rape, verbal remarks, grabbing and pressure for sexual favors, affects thousands of men each year. Victims are most often young, low-ranking enlistees who fall prey to peers’ and superiors’ desire to demean or humiliate others. The acts are rarely homosexual in nature but rather an effort to feel powerful or dominant over others.
"Sexual assaults on military men is much more prevalent than people imagine," said VA psychologist David Sutton, a former Air Force pilot and Vietnam vet who counsels male sexual assault victims. "In basic training, it’s easy to exert one’s power over a young recruit. And even if they do report it, there is an attempt to disregard it or an attempt to cover it up."
Shame and stigma run deep in all forms of sexual abuse, but are particularly problematic for men in the military. Because sexual assault is often misperceived as a “women’s issue,” men may be afraid to appear “weak” in the eyes of their comrades. Rather than jeopardize the career they’ve worked so hard to build or make themselves a target for retaliation, most men stay quiet. Concern over being labeled homosexual or “less of a man” makes it even more difficult to come forward.
A 2010 Pentagon survey indicated that almost half of active-duty soldiers who had been sexually assaulted kept silent because they didn’t want anyone to know; one-third said they didn’t think anything would be done; and nearly 30 percent said they feared retaliation.
Trauma Destroys Lives
Trauma lies at the heart of many of the most insidious and life-threatening mental health disorders. Substance abuse, eating disorders, sex addiction, depression and anxiety all frequently develop as a result of trauma.
Military sexual trauma destroys people’s sense of self. Victims lose their ability to trust in their relationships, focus on the job, and feel love and happiness. Many suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems, chronic pain, and other emotional and physical conditions. Although they may leave the military alive, many wish they weren’t. Post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide rates are high among survivors of military sexual abuse.
The trauma men experience ends up being relived over and over. First, men are being attacked by the people they are supposed to trust with their lives. In many cases, the perpetrator is a supervisor or higher ranking authority figure with whom the individual has to live, work and answer to on a daily basis.
When reaching out for help, men are told they must’ve provoked the attack, and to keep quiet or else. Rather than punishing the assailant, it is often the victim who is moved to another unit, demoted or ostracized. Frequently, those who report a violation are classified as homosexual and kicked out of the military. Forced to give up their military careers or go AWOL, many experience ongoing humiliation and suffering back at home.
The trauma continues when men seek treatment at VA hospitals. In an institution that reportedly has long waiting lists and is run by the same institution that allowed the violation to occur, few military sexual trauma victims feel safe receiving the treatment they need.
Government Efforts Insufficient
The government has tried to prove that it takes military sexual trauma seriously, defining the condition in broad terms and establishing a specially trained unit to handle incident reports. As a result of a 1999 federal law, veterans are routinely asked in a Department of Veterans Affairs survey whether they were sexually harassed or assaulted during their military careers.
Many say these steps aren’t sufficient, and that civilian laws offer more protection than military procedures for prosecuting these crimes. According to Pentagon figures, only 15 percent of reported cases were prosecuted last year.
Servicemen who have sustained emotional rather than physical injuries face a series of obstacles in getting benefits. While veterans who file claims for combat-related PTSD do not need to have reported the incident when it happened or have proof that it occurred, those subjected to sexual trauma have the burden to prove that the sexual assault occurred.
Legislation has been introduced to combat this double standard, but the process takes time and the outcome is uncertain. Meanwhile, thousands of servicemen continue to be assaulted, often by assailants who have offended before and have never been brought to justice.
Recently, a group of 16 men and women who were sexually assaulted during active service filed a class-action lawsuit against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. They are accusing the military of running institutions in which “perpetrators were promoted …and Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subjected to retaliation.”
Help for Male Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma
People don’t want to acknowledge military sexual trauma because it may tarnish the reputation of the U.S. military. But not talking about it only exacerbates the shame and stigma, driving men further into hiding.
Any time there is a lack of awareness, there is often a lack of resources. Few male survivors of military sexual trauma know where to turn for help with trauma recovery. Just as many clinicians are unsure of which programs and community resources are available to their patients. There is only one VA inpatient facility in Florida dedicated to treating sexual trauma, and its wait list continues to grow.
Veterans who have experienced sexual trauma are calling for greater assistance both within and outside the military. In addition to proposed improvements to the VA treatment system, social networking sites, crisis centers, and treatment programs for trauma and related issues are all playing an important role in helping survivors of military sexual trauma.
The men and women who serve our country do so in pursuit of justice, yet the treatment they receive insults the commitment they’ve shown to protect a country that doesn’t protect them in return. With greater awareness, more equitable laws and improved access to trauma treatment, fewer servicemen will lose their families, careers and mental health at the hands of other Americans.