Imagine yourself as a young woman who has decided to halt civilian life and serve your country in the armed forces. You have prepared for a new life and are completely aware of the difficulties and troubles that lie ahead as you defend America against enemies of the state, both domestic and foreign. You experience pride in knowing that you will be a part of an elite faction of U.S. citizens willingly fighting to protect the principles and standards of American life. The feeling is overwhelming, the camaraderie is intoxicating, and you suspect that there could have been no better way to serve your country other than to volunteer for a position in the United States Armed Forces. Then the rose-colored film that once shielded you from the glare of sexual inequality dissipates and the catcalls begin. Some of the same comrades that you thought would fight along your side now mock you with harassment. Your trust wanes and your confidence in your decision begin to waver, and then the unthinkable happens: you experience a sexual assault.
Scenarios like this are unfortunately all too common for women and a small group of men in the military. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, military sexual trauma (MST) is defined as the sexual assault or repeated threatening sexual harassment of an individual while they have served in the military. This may also include any form of sexual coercion invoked by fear of noncompliance or perceived professional advancement. In the steady search for gender equality and a general desire for respect, the alarming occurrences of MST violate the human rights of those affected by MST events and they also show the lack of respect for female members of the military. If women are objectified and preyed upon while taking on the same duties as men, how can there be any sense of true camaraderie and equality in the military. In 2011, there were 3,192 reported sexual assaults for both male and female victims. The Pentagon estimates that more than 86 percent of Military Sexual Trauma incidents are never reported. Women have a fear of reporting being sexually assaulted because of being ostracized from their co-workers. They do not want to be seen as weak, or as trouble makers. According to SWAN, the Veterans Administration only approves one in three claims for PTSD that stems from MST.
When our servicemen and women are deployed out of the country they are sent on missions to serve and protect our country. They need to be able to think clearly at all times, and the fact that these sexual assaults are happening behind closed doors, and much of the time are not reported makes it more difficult for them to be able to be quick on their toes. Cohesion is highly valued within the military environment. Divulging any sort of negative information about a fellow soldier can be considered taboo. Many victims are reluctant at reporting their experience because they are not believed or are encouraged to keep silent about the experience. Most of the time servicemen and women choose to not voice themselves when they are assaulted and struggle with the issue that they have been let down by the country that they so bravely are fighting for. Survivors of MST continually express frustration with the disability claims process because it is especially hard to prove to the VA that an assault ever happened.
The numbers are alarming and while it will be difficult to change the culture of silence that prevent many women from reporting an MST event, there is legislation in the works that will modify the VA’s claims process so the women are able to receive the help they need. The Ruth Moore Act of 2013 aims to require the VA to report to congress all claims of MST, list MST as an in-service stressor related to the development of PTSD, and recognize the full range of disabilities associated with MST related to the individuals mental and physical impairments caused by the event. This legislation is a step in the right direction towards assuring women who have been let down by their superiors, comrades, and government that there is help available and they are not alone. Supporting the Ruth Moore Act of 2013 and legislation like it will prove to victims and perpetrators that the civilians they fight for will not stand for the continuation of MST and its eradication will soon come. Visit www.govtrack.us for more information regarding Ruth Moore Act of 2013.
USC School of Social Work MSW Candidates