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Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area and the founder and president of Give an Hour™ a nonprofit 501(c)(3), founded in September 2005. The organization's mission is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society.
Special to Veterans Advantage
Over the past several months we have seen an increase in the attention given to a very serious issue affecting our military community: military sexual assault. One reason for the increase in interest has been the release of a documentary film called The Invisible War (http://invisiblewarmovie.com/). The film - which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and opened in theaters in June - presents the stories of several women and men who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military. The service members who stepped forward to share these stories chose to serve our country by joining the armed forces - and were devastated by the assault they experienced and the lack of support they received from the institution they had devoted themselves to.
The film, which received critical acclaim, has stimulated conversations in both civilian and military communities across the country regarding a brutal reality that affects far too many men and women who serve. By telling the painful stories of several victims of sexual assault, the film provides an important framework to understand the impact of this type of attack on those who serve and their families. It sets the stage for discussions and actions that must be taken if we are to protect those who defend our country from attacks that can occur from within. And it confirms that we must ensure services are available for those who have already been harmed.
Looking at the number of reports filed with the Department of Defense (DoD) in recent years confirms the magnitude of the problem. In 2010 there were 3,158 total reports of sexual assault in the military. DoD estimates that this number represents only 13.5% of total assaults in 2010. If this estimate is accurate, then the total number of military sexual assaults would have been upwards of 20,000. Of the 3,158 reports that were made in FY2010, only 529 ever went to trial.
Of the 3,192 military sexual assaults reported in 2011, service members were the victims in 2,723 of those assaults. Eighty-four percent of the incidents reported occurred in FY11, 14% were related to incidents occurring from FY08 to FY10, and 2% concerned incidents occurring in FY07 and prior. Of the 3,192 reports filed in 2011, only 791 individuals named as the assailant received some form of disciplinary action.
Understandably, this type of attack and betrayal often leads to the development of severe mental health difficulties for the men and women who are victimized. We know, for example, that many of the female veterans treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs and other programs receive a diagnosis of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and this type of trauma is now the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among female veterans, surpassing combat trauma. In addition, the experience of military sexual assault increases the likelihood of other serious and devastating conditions and consequences such as substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide.
I was recently asked to testify before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs about this difficult - to-discuss but critical - to-face issue. The hearing I participated in focused on a set of important questions related to assisting the victims of military sexual trauma who seek care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Specifically, the committee sought to explore the process and procedures involved in obtaining VA disability compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder based on military sexual trauma. And it attempted to determine how to improve the evaluation process for veterans who have been sexually assaulted so that those in need are quickly identified and treated. This hearing marks the beginning of what is likely to be a long conversation involving many within the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, our lawmakers, and those organizations that support those who serve and their families. There is little controversy here - no one disputes the damage that occurs when a service member is sexually assaulted. The discussions focus on policy matters and institutional adjustments necessary to improve our efforts to effectively prevent attacks and treat survivors.
While this issue is getting significant attention today, sexual assault has been affecting - and often destroying - the lives of those who serve for decades. Unfortunately, many of those who have been assaulted are unlikely to report the attack to their command, to their peers, to anybody. Indeed, data from the Department of Defense reflects this sad reality. Reports indicate that an estimated 86% of service members do not report an assault when it occurs. There are many reasons for this, one being that for 25% of military sexual assault survivors, the person they would report the assault to is the perpetrator.
We in the mental health profession know that it is absolutely critical for victims of sexual trauma to seek and receive assistance, support, and treatment as soon as possible. Given that many who suffer sexual attacks within the military will not seek care while they continue to serve, we must ensure that all of those who seek services for sexual assault once they leave the service are treated as quickly and as supportively as possible. This type of immediate and respectful care must be provided whether treatment is sought through the VA or from a community-based program or provider.
In addition to changing the process for victims of sexual assault to apply for and receive services through the VA, we should continue to expand the network of providers available to meet these and other growing needs within the military community at large. The VA has made tremendous strides in recognizing that partnerships with community-based organizations are critical if we are to provide the mental health services that the men, women, and families who serve our country need when they come home to our communities. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOA) with my organization, Give an Hour, which provides free mental health services to military personnel, veterans, and their loved ones. This MOA will facilitate appropriate referrals to GAH providers from the VA's Veterans Crisis Line. It is easy to imagine how community-based efforts such as those provided by Give an Hour and other organizations can continue to assist the VA in its efforts to provide swift and effective care to those who have given so much to our country.
Give an Hour™, providing free mental health services to military personnel and their loved ones, at www.giveanhour.org.
Editors Note: Give an Hour™ is a strategic partner of Veterans Advantage. Learn more about our partnership with Give an Hour™.
Veterans Advantage is also hosting a special online PTS Transition Center for its members, with customized news and resources to help in this vital area.
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