Why Is It So Hard to Address Sexual Assault in our Military?

In a word: the culture.  The military/warrior culture of course, but also our culture at large.

Dr. Carl Castro, Associate Professor and Director, USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, points out that sexual assault is seen equally in our civilian society and in society world-wide.  Still, the estimated percentage of females who experience sexual assault in the military (MST) can be safely said to be about 25 percent.  That’s one in four.  Staggering. (The percentage for men is two to three percent.)

According to a report by O’Neil and Morgan for Frames Works Institute, “unequal social systems and the cultures that perpetuate them shape behaviors, making certain acts easier of more acceptable to commit.” I’d certainly call the (necessary) hierarchy of the military an unequal system, even without taking into consideration of how gender shapes that experience.  How the military has handled MST has looked a lot like it was acceptable behavior in the culture.

It’s interesting that the Veterans Administration includes verbal harassment in their definition of sexual assault. The Department of Defense does not.  Doesn’t it seem like these two organizations would agree on at least the definition. It seems odd to me that DoD’s definition is less inclusive than the VA, whose responsibility it is to offer treatment.

Sexual assault is a severe stressor.  Greater even than combat.  Women who experience MST are 5 times more likely to develop PTSD; exposed to combat, they’re 4 times as likely. Men who are victims of MST are 6 times more likely to develop PTSD; for combat it’s the same as for women. Both men and women in the military are in harm’s way from inside the system as well as from the outside.

In 2012 when the big MST story broke, there were an estimated 26,000 service members who experienced unwanted sexual contact.  By 2014 the number had decreased to 20,300. The report just released shows the estimated number has dropped to 14,900. Update November 2019: DoD Releases Annual Report on Sexual Assault in Military MAY 1, 2018 | BY LISA FERDINANDO

A victim’s option of a restricted report as opposed to an unrestricted report seems to have had the desired effect of increased reporting. Restricted reporting means that the report does not go to command.  Unrestricted reports do. Those are the ones that the judicial system acts on.  As you might guess, the number of restricted reports is greater.

Command presents its own hurdle.  Each one is unique within the greater culture. How that first level of command treats the issue shapes the victim’s experience. The prospect of the incident being on the service record of the victim and/or the commander can be a deterrent to reporting MST and PTSD.  The culture has been “not on my command” for a long time.  Think of turning a battleship around…change doesn’t happen quickly. Still, the option to make a restricted report results in more victims receiving treatment, and that’s a good thing.

Here at the NVF we know that female soldiers don’t self-identify as veterans. MST is often a factor.  We see it at work in the low number of women who come to the VA for treatment.  First, it’s only fairly recently that women’s health clinics have been created within the VA, and the system is still male-dominated. Probably not the most comfortable place for a female suffering from MST and PTSD.

Many of the women we talk to on our Lifeline for Vets and in our outreach, aren’t forthcoming about MST at first, but the signs are there for a careful listener to spot.

Because MST happens in a closed system, where people work, eat and sleep in close quarters, the effects of sexual assault can be greater.  That this happens in a culture of loyalty and protection makes it closer to incest.  These are the kinds of things that are difficult to say: betrayal, rape, incest.

Maybe it’s time we took the gloves off and just called it rape. Like they do.  The victims.

If you know a veteran, male or female who needs help. here’s our Lifeline for Vets number: 888.777.4443

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About the Author

Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.


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