Recognizing and Addressing An Underrated Veteran Disability
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is sexual harassment and or sexual assault experienced by a military service member. It is much more widespread and common than reported and is devastating and often disabling for those who experience it.
In this article, we’ll take a look at common questions about military sexual trauma and some key facts about how the VA recognizes this condition—and, most importantly, how to pursue compensation for this life-altering injury. We’ll offer resources and information to help veterans understand the impact of MST, and discuss how to claim for a mental health rating (such as PTSD) connected to MST.
- Recognizing and Addressing An Underrated Veteran Disability
- #1 – How is Military Sexual Trauma defined?
- #2 – Who experiences Military Sexual Trauma?
- #3 – How does MST impact veterans?
- WARNING: VA MST (Military Sexual Trauma) Claims and How Trauma Affects Veterans Mental Health!
- #4 – How does the VA deal with Military Sexual Trauma?
- #5 – Is there a military sexual trauma disability rating?
- #6 – How can I get a VA rating linked to MST?
- #7 – How can I prove I was a victim of MST?
- #8 – Are there other benefits and resources for veterans with military sexual trauma?
- #9 – Can I sue the military for MST?
- #10 – Does VA Claims Insider support survivors of military sexual trauma?
- MAKE SURE YOU GET ALL THE BENEFITS YOU DESERVE
- About the Author
#1 – How is Military Sexual Trauma defined?
Military sexual trauma (MST) is a subset of personal trauma and refers to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape that occurs in a military setting or during military service. That would include any sexual activity that a veteran is involved with against his or her will.
- Being pressured or coerced into sexual activities, such as with threats of negative treatment for refusal to cooperate, or with promises of better treatment in exchange for sex
- Sexual contact or activities without your consent, including when you were asleep or intoxicated
- Being overpowered or physically forced to have sex
- Being touched or grabbed in a sexual way that made you uncomfortable, including during “hazing” experiences
- Comments about your body or sexual activities that you found threatening
- Unwanted sexual advances that you found threatening
The identity or characteristics of the perpetrator, whether a veteran was on- or off-duty at the time, and whether they were on or off base at the time is immaterial.
The VA states that it is “strongly committed to ensuring that veterans have access to the help they need in order to recover from MST.”
See more: Military Sexual Trauma
#2 – Who experiences Military Sexual Trauma?
The scope of military sexual trauma is still not fully understood, but it’s clearer than ever that it’s a widespread issue, affecting hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of veterans.
If you have experienced MST, you are nowhere near alone. According to statistics from the 2019 U.S. Department of Defense annual report on sexual assault in the military, an estimated 20,500 Service members, representing about 13,000 women and 7,500 men, experienced some kind of physical sexual assault in 2018—up from approximately 14,900 in 2016.
Secondly, it’s estimated that more than two-thirds of all occurrences go unreported. It’s believed that only about one in three victims chooses to report their assault. The odds are extremely high that you know someone who was the victim of MST, even if you didn’t experience it yourself.
According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry titled “Military sexual trauma in US veterans: results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study,” 7.6% of US veterans screen positive for military sexual trauma, with substantially higher rates among female and younger veterans.
Anyone can experience military sexual trauma, regardless of gender. However, in this study the overall prevalence was higher among female than male veterans (32.4% vs 4.8%). It was also higher in younger than older veterans (22.8% among veterans aged 18-29 years vs 4.5% among veterans aged 60+ years).
Although there may be some variables (such as prior traumatic experiences) that may make an individual more vulnerable to the psychiatric and medical consequences of MST, it is clear that military sexual trauma is a major healthcare issue that affects both sexes at all ages, and warrants further attention and resources.
#3 – How does MST impact veterans?
Like other types of trauma, MST can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later.
According to the study mentioned above in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, “Military sexual trauma is associated with elevated rates of several psychiatric conditions and suicidality, reduced functioning and quality of life, and increased mental health treatment use—independent of other sociodemographic, military, and mental health factors. After adjustment for sociodemographic and military characteristics, MST was associated with elevated rates of current major depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.”
A review of studies called Military sexual trauma as a determinant in the development of mental and physical illness in male and female veterans indicated that military sexual trauma is related to an increase in psychiatric pathology, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and dependence, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal behavior. MST is also related to an increase in medical illness, primarily pain-related symptoms involving multiple organ systems, including gastrointestinal, neurological, genitourinary and musculoskeletal.
According to a report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General, women veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma are more than twice as likely as other women veterans to become homeless after leaving the military. About 40% of female MST survivors have experienced homelessness at some point after discharge.
How might military sexual trauma affect you?
If you’ve experienced military sexual trauma, your experience could include:
- Disturbing memories or nightmares
- Difficulty feeling safe
- Feelings of depression or numbness
- Problems with anger, irritability, or other strong emotions
- Issues with sleep
- Physical health problems
You may also experience:
- Difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory: trouble staying focused; frequently finding your mind wandering; having a hard time remembering things
- Problems with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily; getting intoxicated or “high” to cope with memories or emotional reactions; drinking to fall asleep.
- Difficulties with relationships: feeling isolated or disconnected from others; abusive relationships; trouble with employers or authority figures; difficulty trusting others
WARNING: VA MST (Military Sexual Trauma) Claims and How Trauma Affects Veterans Mental Health!
#4 – How does the VA deal with Military Sexual Trauma?
The VA has officially made it a focus to better recognize military sexual trauma and provide assistance to those who have experienced it. Since 2002, the VA has been directed to consider claims for MST more liberally, since MST is rarely reported when it first occurs.
As a result, evidence standards have been adjusted to take into account that most MST is not reported through official channels.
In 2011, the VA was directed to take MST even more seriously and special training was provided for employees of the VA who conduct examinations. Because of this, the VA has been directed to look less at direct evidence to establish service-connection and more at specific “markers.” These markers represent strong circumstantial evidence such as signs, events or circumstances that can validate the claim.
With these new guidelines, the VA saw an increase in approvals for MST-related conditions. For example, in 2011 nearly 60% of all claims for PTSD unrelated to MST were accepted, while only 35% of claims for MST-related PTSD were accepted. Those numbers are now nearly identical.
Still, the VA still has a long way to go, as stories continue to surface of veterans wrongly denied in their MST claims, including PTSD claims arising from military sexual trauma. A 2018 report from the VA Inspector General’s office called “Denied Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Claims Related to Military Sexual Trauma” found that during just a six-month period in 2017, VA officials improperly refused benefits to more than 1,300 veterans (most of them women).
#5 – Is there a military sexual trauma disability rating?
There is no VA rating specifically and directly for military sexual trauma. Since MST isn’t directly provided a rating by the VA, some may assume that they have no chance to get the benefits they need.
Thankfully, this isn’t true. The VA doesn’t recognize MST itself as a ratable condition, but you can receive compensation for conditions that result from it. Claims for conditions caused by MST are common and more accepted than ever before.
Still, because military sexual trauma is hard to talk about or think about, and there is often shame and stigma associated with it, it’s often overlooked as a disability to pursue.
Don’t let the lack of an official “MST VA rating”—or shame or fear—stop you from getting the support you deserve. Military sexual trauma can be extremely debilitating, and we strongly encourage you to pursue the highest level of benefit you earned while you recover and heal.
You DESERVE a HIGHER VA rating.
WE CAN HELP.
Take advantage of a FREE VA Claim Discovery Call with an experienced Team Member. Learn what you’ve been missing so you can FINALLY get the disability rating and compensation you’ve earned for your service.
#6 – How can I get a VA rating linked to MST?
The Link Between MST and PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety
As detailed above, MST is an underlying cause of or associated with many physical and psychological conditions. Most veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma subsequently suffer with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other diagnosed mental health conditions. They may experience one or several of these conditions.
While these conditions need not necessarily be permanent, they can cause severe symptoms while you have them, and you deserve to receive the benefits you need as long as you’re dealing with these debilitating conditions.
It’s possible to receive a 100% rating for any of these conditions if they are severe enough, but the most commonly accepted claim is for PTSD. PTSD resulting from MST (informally, “MST PTSD”) is also the condition where you are most likely to receive a 100% rating.
There are notable connections between MST and an onset of PTSD. Analyses have revealed MST was more strongly associated with PTSD than other pre-military or post-military trauma. Women with MST have the greatest increased odds of developing PTSD.
Filing Your Claim for PTSD Caused by MST
When filing your claim for MST, ensure that you have:
- Current diagnosis from a medical provider of PTSD
- Personal statements written by you with credible supporting evidence (use VA form 21-4138; more info on this form here)
- Buddy letters describing the PTSD symptoms (use VA form 21-10210)
- You may also want to use Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) secondary to personal assault (VA form 21-0781a)
- Medical evidence for the purpose of your rating
With service-connection established, the VA will consider the severity of symptoms and then assign a rating. This means that they will look at the full effect of all your symptoms, not just the severity of one or two.
The VA determines a disability rating after reviewing service medical records, C&P exam report and any other evidence submitted to them in support of the veteran’s claim based upon an established list of criteria. VA examiners will also seek to establish that your symptoms are not due to other issues like substance abuse, medication side effects or other illnesses.
PTSD can be so disabling that the VA will award a 100% disability rating for those suffering enough. As discussed previously, it used to be harder to get approved at all for PTSD suffered as a result of MST. While that gap has narrowed substantially, it’s still important to have a solid strategy while filing your claim, especially in order to get a full 100% rating.
With PTSD, a 100% rating is assigned when you are considered to be totally socially and occupationally impaired and also experience the majority of symptoms/situations listed below.
- Gross impairment in thought processes or communication
- Persistent delusions or hallucinations,
- Grossly inappropriate behavior
- The danger of hurting oneself or others
- Inability to perform activities of daily living (like personal hygiene)
- Memory loss of names, work, and other relevant knowledge
Fortunately, you don’t have to meet all the subjective symptoms under the rating criteria for PTSD in order to get the 100% disability rating. Your adjudicator will look at the overall effect of the symptoms and give an “occupational and social” rating; however, the final and official mental health rating will be based on the severity of your symptoms.
Mental health disability claims can warrant a rating of 0%, 10%, 30%, 50%, 70% or 100%.
For details on the criteria, see our post How To File a VA Claim for PTSD.
In some cases, MST-related PTSD may be so severe that it’s difficult or impossible for you to work. If your military sexual trauma-related PTSD interferes with maintaining employment, you may qualify for a 100% disability rating even if your other symptoms don’t rise to the 100% level. Unemployability is another way to a 100% rating.
The good news is that PTSD is one of the easiest VA claims to win. It is among the top 3 of claims approved by the VA. In fact, 13.1% of all veterans who have been granted a VA disability claim for PTSD have received a 100% rating—much higher than most other disability claims.
#7 – How can I prove I was a victim of MST?
For any VA disability compensation claim to be successful, there must be:
- A current physical or mental condition that affects your body or mind; and
- An event, injury, or illness that happened while you were serving in the military; and
- A link between your current disability and the event, injury, or disease that happened during your military service.
In all claims, the VA will look for evidence that establishes the event (of assault or harassment), proof that the event caused or aggravated your condition, and proof that you are still suffering from the condition.
It will be helpful if the incident was reported while still serving in the military, as such records will assist the VA in determining the connection. However, as explained, the VA now recognizes that many events are so traumatic that they’re not reported until much later, so not having a military record of the event will not derail your claim.
When you’re preparing to submit your evidence for the claim, fill out VA Form 21-0781a. This form is specifically for those who are filling a claim based on MST. The information requested in this form will assist you in supplying the evidence needed for your claim.
Again, if you experienced MST, the VA will relax the standards for evidence needed to prove that your condition was service-related. Because so much sexual trauma goes unreported, evidence is accepted from sources that other claims would not allow. Here are some examples of those options:
- Department of Defense sexual assault or harassment reporting forms
- Investigative Reports completed during military service
- Law enforcement reports
- Mental Health Counseling Centers
- Requests for transfer to another military duty assignment
In addition to the sources of evidence listed above, veterans who have current posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health conditions related to their experiences of MST can also submit indirect sources of evidence. These may be behavioral events, patterns of changed behavior or circumstances (markers) that provide clues that the traumatic event happened. They do not have to provide definitive evidence that it did.
Some examples are:
- Change in work performance at the time
- Episodes of the following without clear cause:
- Journals or personal diaries
- Panic attacks
- Pregnancy tests
- Records from official sources
- Civilian physicians
- Civilian hospitals, health clinics, mental health counseling centers
- Civilian law enforcement o Rape crisis centers or centers for domestic violence
- Relationship issues, like divorce
- Requests for transfer to another military duty assignment
- Sexual dysfunction
- • Statements from others
- Chaplains or clergy members
- Faculty members
- Family members
- Fellow service members
- Substance abuse
- Tests for sexually transmitted diseases
- Unexplained social or economic behavior
Be sure to visit a medical professional and be as detailed as possible about your symptoms, the frequency of those symptoms, and how they impact your day-to-day life.
To receive a 100% rating, the VA will be looking for specific details to determine you are fully disabled.
You will need a nexus letter from the medical professional explaining how your PTSD is linked to military sexual trauma. Remember, specific proof isn’t necessary, but the note must explain how it is “at least as likely as not” that your PTSD was caused by the traumatic event you experienced.
Gather and submit other evidence necessary to substantiate your claim. Again, the linking of PTSD to MST now has a relaxed standard regarding specific evidence since military sexual trauma can be difficult to prove definitively. This is where it will be important to record all the “markers” discussed earlier and submit them with your claim.
It may be helpful to gather as many buddy letters as possible from those who knew you before and after the event. Family, friends, or fellow service members will be able to testify to the markers they’ve noticed since your trauma occurred. These letters can greatly help substantiate your claim.
#8 – Are there other benefits and resources for veterans with military sexual trauma?
Veterans may be eligible for specific, free MST-related care. Due to the relaxed eligibility rules associated with MST, many of the standard requirements are excused.
The VA provides free treatment for any physical or mental health conditions related to MST without requiring documentation of the MST experience or a VA rating. The VA also provides MST-related outpatient counseling through its Vet Centers.
There’s an MST Coordinator at every VA health facility to serve as a contact for MST-related issues. They’re there to assist veterans in getting the care they need for MST and to answer all of your questions.
Many facilities have separate programs for men and women, for cases in which the veteran who experienced military sexual trauma is uncomfortable being treated by someone of the opposite sex. Be sure and speak up at the time of scheduling if this applies to you.
As with other disabilities, it’s possible to receive monthly non-taxable compensation from the VA for conditions linked to MST if it’s service-connected. Other benefits available are:
- Health care
- 10-point hiring preference for federal employment
- Caregiver program
- Career services
- Education assistance
- Home loan guaranty
The VA offers this free, secure and private self-help mobile app created specifically to support the health and well-being of survivors of MST. The app has over 30 specialized tools and other features to help MST survivors cope with challenges, manage symptoms, improve their quality of life and find hope. Users don’t need to create an account or be in treatment to use the app. Personal information entered in the app is not shared with anyone, including the VA.
Also see: Help for Veterans Distressed by Recent Events Related to MST and Violence Toward People of Color. This covers suggestions and resources for connecting with care for MST survivors, and others feeling pain and distress due to events related to MST (as well as violence toward people of color).
For help with treatment and health care related to experiences of MST, please contact your local VA medical center and ask to speak to the MST Coordinator.
#9 – Can I sue the military for MST?
Yale Law School reports several lawsuits against the VA related to military sexual trauma.
Jennifer Hlad, VA sued over PTSD claims related to sexual assault, Stars and Stripes, May 1, 2014
Leo Shane, Lawsuit claims VA discriminates against sexual assault victims, Army Times, May 1, 2014
Peggy McCarthy, Lawsuit: VA Discriminates Against Veterans With Sexual Trauma, The Hartford Courant, April 30, 2014
Richard Oppel, Veterans Agency Is Sued Over Handling of Trauma Cases, The New York Times, April 30, 2014
Mary O’Leary, Yale Law School suit alleges Veterans Administration biased against sex assault victims with PTSD, New Haven Register, April 30, 2014
#10 – Does VA Claims Insider support survivors of military sexual trauma?
VA Claims Insider recognizes and has great compassion for the suffering caused by military sexual trauma. We have female coaches who can help with your claim, and access to many resources. We can help you get a plan in place for you and your claim.
MAKE SURE YOU GET ALL THE BENEFITS YOU DESERVE
Regardless of what state you live in, it’s important that you pursue the monthly compensation payments due to you for disabilities connected to your military service.
Most veterans are underrated for their disabilities and therefore not getting the compensation they deserve. At VA Claims Insider, we help veterans understand and take control of the claims process so they can get the rating and compensation they’re owed by law.
Our process takes the guesswork out of filing a VA disability claim and supports you every step of the way in building a fully-developed claim (FDC)—so you can increase your rating in less time!
If you’ve filed your VA disability claim and have been denied or have received a low rating – or you’re not sure how to get started – reach out to us for a FREE VA Claim Discovery Call so you can FINALLY get the disability rating and compensation you deserve. We’ve supported more than 15,000 veterans to win their claims and increase their ratings. NOW IT’S YOUR TURN.
About the Author
Toni Ann Bator
Toni Bator is a veteran coach at VA Claims insider. She was a leader in the non-profit sector for over 25 years, assisting society’s most marginalized individuals. She recently transitioned from the social service sector into professional coaching, and is now a certified professional coach specializing in positive psychology and well-being.
Toni’s father was a WWII Navy Veteran and a Master Sergeant during the Korean War. Her passion for assisting veterans derives from her adoration and love for her role-model father as well as her commitment to serving others.
Toni has a B.S. in Psychology from American International College and a Master’s degree in leadership from Norwich University. Her coaching certification is from the College of Executive Coaching, an NBWHC-approved program for individuals with graduate degrees. She is Founder of Infuse Leadership, a coaching practice for individuals who are successful externally but struggle internally from burnout and substance use.