Back to Blog List

Understanding Military Sexual Trauma

What is Military Sexual Trauma?

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) refers to a service member’s experience with sexual assault or sexual harassment occurring at any point during his or her military service.

The first time DAV benefits advocate Naomi Mathis saw Army veteran Migdalia Griswold’s case file, she knew something was wrong.

Migdalia had extensive documented proof she was a survivor of MST. But instead of being helped by her command when she reported what happened, she was called a liar and eventually forced out of the service with an other-than-honorable discharge.

For more than 30 years, Migdalia was left to deal on her own with the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the incident.

“It was just wrong,” said Naomi. “And that wrong needed to be right.”

While it’s ultimately up to individuals, like Migdalia, to work through the process—doing things like writing statements, attending appointments and gathering documentation—taking the first steps and knowing where to go in accessing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits can be a confusing journey without someone to help.

“That’s where you need DAV to step in, because it’s so overwhelming,” said Naomi. 

Naomi, along with her then-supervisor, Michael Michelotti, began working with Migdalia through a process that would take nearly two years to complete.

How common is it?

An estimated 1 in 3 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans in the VA healthcare system report experiencing MST. It is important to note that by percentage women are at greater risk, but nearly 40% of veterans who disclose MST to the VA are men.

Michael Stern, DAV, Donate, Veterans, MSTDuring his time in the service, Navy veteran Michael Stern experienced sexual assault by a Navy officer. Michael thought he may have been drugged. He said the attack was like having an out-of-body experience.

“I didn’t have any control, and it was almost like I was watching it on TV,” said Michael. “The last thing I remember is him telling me that if I told anyone about this, he would report me and have me kicked out.” 

Years passed before he could utter a word about his assault. Eventually, he met a DAV benefits advocate who helped him file a claim for PTSD due to MST.

“We know as advocates that MST is not gender-specific, but it can be difficult to see that from the outside,” said DAV National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “That’s why it’s so incredibly important to shed light on the facts so the people responsible for facilitating health care, making claims decisions, and allocating resources for treatment and programs can adequately meet the unique needs of those who have been affected.”

How does DAV help MST survivors?

People who come to DAV’s benefits advocates looking for guidance and help are met by someone who can relate to what a service-disabled veteran is going through and who has the expertise to navigate the process of getting earned veterans benefits, no matter how challenging the process may be.

DAV National Area Supervisor Carmen McGinnis said she is keenly aware of just what it takes to get a claim related to MST across the finish line—both as a DAV benefits advocate and an MST survivor.

“I am proud to have served—incredibly proud to be a Marine,” said Carmen. “But my service was marred by the actions of another.”

Carmen, who served in Afghanistan after enlisting on 9/11, has spoken of the inconsistencies veterans face when seeking benefits related to MST. Specifically, she pointed to the high evidentiary standards the VA requires of MST survivors, noting that veterans who served in combat are not subject to the same burden—the VA accepts the accounts of these veterans as long as their records reflect they served in a combat zone.

“It is enough for them to claim that they feared for their life,” explained Carmen. “I expect, if asked, many MST survivors would report they feared for their lives—I certainly did.

“Our trauma is no less significant, and our pain and suffering is just as real,” she added.

When our nation’s heroes are wounded due to MST, your support helps them to know that DAV can be counted on to assist them in their healing journey and to aid them in the fight for the benefits they earned while in service.

Will you join us today in assisting veterans who are MST survivors with your monthly gift of $10, $25 or $50? 

Other Stories from Mission News