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Military Sexual Trauma and the Iraq War

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Updated July 16, 2009

Women coming home from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) may be experiencing in great numbers what many female soldiers of previous wars have encountered -- military sexual trauma (MST).

MST has been found to be a widespread problem in the military. In fact, around 23% to 33% of women veterans report experiencing a MST. This is an alarmingly high rate, especially considering that it is thought that many women don't report MST out of fear of repercussions and/or shame.

MST can have a lasting impact on a woman's mental health, including raising her risk of the development of PTSD. In fact, MST may be more likely to lead to PTSD than other traumatic events experienced while in the military or in civilian life.

MST in OEF/OIF Veterans

To date, not much has been known about the consequences of MST among OIF/OEF women veterans. For this reason, researchers at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Long Beach Healthcare System in Long Beach, California, decided to look at this question by conducting research on 18 women who served in OEF/OIF and were seeking mental health care at their VA.

The rates of MST in this small sample of women were shocking. More than half of these women indicated that they had experienced MST while in the service. The most common form of MST was sexual harassment. However, a third said they also experienced unwanted physical advances, and a fifth of them said that they had been sexually assaulted or raped.

In addition to MST, all of the women also were experiencing symptoms of PTSD and other psychological difficulties, including depression, anger, and anxiety. Many of the women also said that they were experiencing difficulties readjusting to post-OEF/OIF life. The women who had experienced a MST, however, were most likely to have difficulty readjusting and to experience more severe psychological symptoms.

Why Such High Rates of MST?

Although these researchers only looked at a small number of women returning from OEF/OIF, it is alarming that over 50% said that they had experienced a MST.

OEF/OIF is unique in that it is one of the first conflicts where women are serving alongside men in every way. In fact, women make up about 11% of the OEF/OIF soldiers deployed. Some women in this study said that this was a cause of some stress in that they felt as though they had the added pressure of trying to prove themselves and always being under the scrutiny of male soldiers.

This stress, combined with the stress of being in combat, can increase the risk for developing PTSD following the experience of a MST. In addition, some female service members may not have easy access to social support or adequate medical and mental health services during active duty, putting them at risk for PTSD following a MST.

How To Get Help

If you have experienced sexual assault in the military or otherwise, you are not alone, and it is important to take action right away. The United States Department of Health and Human Services provides information on sexual assault, as well as on what to do if you have been sexually assaulted. Information on MST and how to get help is also available through the National Center for PTSD.

Sources:

Fontana, A., & Rosenheck, R. (1998). Duty-related and sexual stress in the etiology of PTSD among women veterans who seek treatment. Psychiatric Services, 49, 658-662.

Himmelfarb, N., Yaeger, D., & Mintz, J. (2006). Posttraumatic stress disorder in female veterans with military and civilian sexual trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 19, 837-846.

Katz, L.S., Bloor, L.E., Cojucar, G., & Draper, T. (2007). Women who served in Iraq seeking mental health services: Relationships between military sexual trauma, symptoms, and readjustment. Psychological Services, 4, 239-249.

Sadler, A.G., Booth, B.M., Nielson, D., & Doebbeling, B. (2000). Health-related consequences of physical and sexual violence: Women in the military. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 96, 473-479.

Skinner, K.M., Kressin, N., Frayne, S., Tripp, T.J., Hankin, C., Miller, D.R. et al. (2000). The prevalence of military and sexual assault among female veterans administration outpatients. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15, 291-310.

Suris, A., Lind, L., Kashner, T.M., Borman, P.D., & Petter, F. (2004). Sexual assault in women veterans: An examination of PTSD risk, health care utilization, and cost of care. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66, 749-756.

Yaeger, D., Himmelfarb, N., Cammack, A., & Mintz, J. (2006). DSM-IV diagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder in women veterans with and without military sexual trauma. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 21, S65-S69.

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