Military sexual trauma linked to posttraumatic stress

A leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, military sexual trauma affects large numbers of veterans across genders.

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Military sexual trauma linked to posttraumatic stress

A soldier sits in isolation. While military post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly associated with experiences from war, military sexual trauma is also a leading cause of PTSD.

A soldier sits in isolation. While military post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly associated with experiences from war, military sexual trauma is also a leading cause of PTSD.

Pixabay

A soldier sits in isolation. While military post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly associated with experiences from war, military sexual trauma is also a leading cause of PTSD.

Pixabay

Pixabay

A soldier sits in isolation. While military post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly associated with experiences from war, military sexual trauma is also a leading cause of PTSD.

By Sam Jackson, Copy Editor

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While military post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly associated with experiences from war, military sexual trauma is also a leading cause of PTSD.

Some EWU student veterans wake up with night sweats, recall unpleasant memories, feel tense and avoid reminders of traumatic events—all symptoms of PTSD.  

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, “55% (55 out of 100) female and 38% (38 out of 100) male veterans experienced sexual assault in the military.” Although women are more likely to experience sexual assault in the armed forces, there are more men in the military, making men over half of all veterans with military sexual trauma. 

55% (55 out of 100) female and 38% (38 out of 100) male veterans experienced sexual assault in the military.”

— U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Audra Stillions, readjustment counselor at Spokane Veterans Center and an EWU alumna, said it’s a common misconception that the majority of combat veterans are diagnosed with PTSD. 

“Only 20% of veterans who deploy develop PTSD,” Stillions said. “Now, when we’re looking at the (military sexual trauma) … 50% of people who have been sexually assaulted in the military develop PTSD. So it’s quite a big difference in percentage.” 

Alan Basham is a retired EWU counseling professor and Navy veteran. He’s also an advocate for a program called “Got Your 6,” which trains EWU faculty and staff on how to help student veterans with PTSD.  

Basham said that there are three levels of groups in the military: those located out of harm’s way, those on a military base (still mostly safe) and those in combat.  

“Most people are never in combat,” Basham said. “They just prepare for it.” 

Though military sexual trauma is usually diagnosed in victims, it can also occur in those who are wrongfully accused of committing sexual assault in the military.  

After a EWU senior, who is an Air Force veteran, served over 16 years in the military, he was accused of sexual assault and harassment, causing his most significant form of post-traumatic stress. The student asked to remain anonymous for this story.

In June 2016 the man was charged with sexual assault and harassment of one woman and sexual harassment with another woman. He was acquitted of the sexual assault and found guilty of maltreatment by sexual harassment for the first woman. For the second woman, he was found not guilty of sexual harassment. Additionally, he was found guilty of unprofessional relationships, a crime in the military by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with both women.  

The student veteran admitted to having consensual relations with both women. 

“My life was just in shambles,” the student veteran said. “I didn’t know what was going on.” 

Every day I had to sit, hands very non-confrontational, while I literally watched my whole sex life, my whole personal life and everything about me just get paraded around in a courtroom in front of a bunch of strangers I (had) never met.”

— Anonymous, Veteran & EWU senior

The student veteran reviewed every statement that the women wrote and recorded during the investigation against him.  

“I got to see everything they said, and it was pretty deflating for someone to watch people that were once your friends just totally act like you were a reincarnation of Satan (and) that you are a terrible person,” the student veteran said. 

It took about 11 months for the man to get court-martialed. He said that each day felt like he was “free-falling from a cliff” as he experienced the loss of his job and friends.

In January 2017 he was court-martialed for four days at Fairchild Air Force Base. He described that time as the worst part of his life. 

“Every day I had to sit, hands very non-confrontational, while I literally watched my whole sex life, my whole personal life and everything about me just get paraded around in a courtroom in front of a bunch of strangers I (had) never met,” the student veteran said. “They were the ones who were going to decide my fate.” 

He remembers, before the jury made a decision, his attorney sliding him the sex offender registry forms he might have to sign if he were found guilty and informing him that he could go to prison at a Marine base in San Diego. Standing at attention in the courtroom, he could barely feel his legs as the jury announced its findings.  

The jury decided that the student veteran should be demoted from an E-7 (master sergeant) to an E-5 (staff sergeant) and given a reprimand—a letter that details his wrongful actions. About a month later, he was sent by his commander to an administrative separation board, and he was voted out of the military.  

The student veteran said the trauma from this experience was much worse than any war he’s been a part of and that time is the only thing that can heal his symptoms.  

Dave Millet, the EWU Veterans Resource Center director, said that about twice a month student veterans will confide in him about their struggles with PTSD and balancing school.

Millet will often refer veterans to the Spokane Veterans Center located in Spokane Valley. The center consists of counselors, like Stillions, who are trained to assist veterans with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Stillions graduated from EWU with a bachelor’s in children’s studies and a master’s in social work. She’s been an active duty and reserve Air Force member and is currently in the 141st Air National Guard.

“I’m passionate about veterans,” Stillions said. “I mean, it’s kind of corny, but they are my people. They are my brothers and sisters in arms.” 

Often times if you can help somebody find housing, or if you can stabilize their income, the mental health issues diminish significantly.”

— Audra Stillions, Readjustment counselor

Stillions said that many service members who are getting out of the military experience difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Readjustment counselors like Stillions help veterans find resources for housing, stabilize their income, address mental health issues, get jobs and work through their transitions in life. 

“Often times if you can help somebody find housing, or if you can stabilize their income, the mental health issues diminish significantly,” Stillions said. “Not completely, for some people they don’t diminish, but it decreases that stress level significantly.” 

There are over 300 veteran centers in the U.S.  For details on the eligibility requirements for readjustment counseling at the Spokane Veterans Center go to https://www.vetcenter.va.gov/Eligibility.asp.  

Due to the center’s congressional mandate, the VA, VA hospitals and the U.S. Department of Defense cannot access its records.  

“I’ve had commanders call me, and I’ll have to say, ‘Ma’am or sir, I’m sorry I cannot confirm or deny that I do or do not know that person,’” Stillions said.  

The mandate allows active duty personnel to seek help without the fear of retribution from their higher-ups.  

Though all the clinicians in the center are qualified to diagnose patients and prescribe medication, they do not.

If an active military member were diagnosed with certain mental health issues or treated with medication, the military might find the person “not mission capable” or even remove him or her from service.

“If they are coming here, it’s kind of a safety net,” Stillions said. “Because we’re not diagnosing, (and) because we’re not providing those medications, they can get help.” 

To be diagnosed or prescribed medication for PTSD, military veterans can seek assistance at any VA hospital.  

“Be proud of what you do,” Stillions said. “Know there’s resources out there.” 

For more information on military PTSD go to https://www.ptsd.va.gov/index.asp. For more information on the Spokane Veterans Center and readjustment counseling go to https://www.vetcenter.va.gov or call 509-444-8387.

A video of Basham’s advice on what universities can do to better assist student veterans accompanies this piece at:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgmETlieXFo.

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