Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) is an annual campaign in April to raise public awareness about sexual assault. In its campaign, VA focuses on sexual assault and sexual harassment occurring during military service – also known as “military sexual trauma” or “MST.” This year, VA’s national theme for SAAM activities is “Standing Together to Empower Military Sexual Trauma Survivors”.
Reflecting on the theme, Timiko Ilion, a MST Coordinator at the Jackson, Mississippi VA Medical Center, says it’s about “people from all walks of life embracing one another and providing encouragement to all survivors of military sexual trauma … letting them know that they are not alone and that there is hope, strength and solidarity for better days ahead.”
Rebecca Robinson, also an MST coordinator, but at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, notes that the theme reminds her of the work she does throughout the year to include survivors’ voices in any outreach or educational efforts she engages in.
“Veterans in my groups offer thoughts that I subsequently read to the participants I’m presenting to,” Robinson said. “It gives survivors a chance to speak for themselves and advocate, and feel empowered to be part of our MST response in Vermont.”
At VA, Veterans who experienced MST have access to a wide range of services to assist them in their recovery. MST-related treatment is available at all VA medical facilities and all treatment for physical and mental health conditions related to experiences of MST is provided free of charge. Veterans may be eligible for free MST-related care even if they are not eligible for other VA services, and service connection (VA disability compensation) is not required. No documentation of MST experiences is required. In addition, every VA healthcare system has an MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues at the facility and can help Veterans access relevant VA services and programs.
Sadly, about 1-in-4 women and 1-in-100 men seen for VA health care report a history of MST when screened by a VA provider. Although the percentage among women is much higher, given the far greater number of men in military service, there are significant numbers of both men and women who have experienced MST. In fact, over 40 percent of the Veterans seen in VA who disclose MST are men.
Because of this, MST coordinators and other VA staff make special efforts during SAAM to show support for Veterans who experienced MST by hosting awareness-raising and educational events. Also, VA’s Make the Connection website has video clips of Veterans sharing their stories of recovery, as a reminder that survivors are not alone in having experienced MST or in having the strength to recover.
For more information, Veterans can speak with a VA health care provider, contact the MST coordinator at their nearest VA medical center, or contact their local Vet Center. A list of VA and Vet Center facilities can be found online by clicking here. Veterans can also learn more about VA’s MST-related services online by clicking here.
James Leathem is a member of VA’s national Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Support Team, where he serves as the field and dissemination coordinator. Prior to joining the MST Support Team, he was the social work section chief for mental health at the Northport, New York VA, as well as the MST coordinator and VISN 3 MST point-of-contact. He holds a masters in Education and a masters in Social Work.