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Zoe Larkey — February 23, 2024

Sexual Violence and PTSD in the Military

Zoe Larkey

Sexual harm occurs in many spaces but disproportionately impacts those in the military. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is defined as sexual harassment, assault, or violence experienced throughout one’s military service. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, only one-fifth of incidents of MST are reported despite their high incidence in these settings. While everyone processes MST differently, this type of trauma can often lead to the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental health concern occurring in individuals who have witnessed or lived through a traumatic event or circumstance. Those within the military are already at high risk for PTSD due to their often frequent contact with trauma and violence, manifesting in symptoms such as mood and cognition changes, avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, intrusive thoughts, and overall mental distress. MST can compound these symptoms, especially when they co-occur with other traumatic military experiences.

Veterans who experience PTSD can file claims with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), within the Department of Veterans Affairs. These claims provide affected individuals with monetary assistance to cover the cost of healthcare related to their circumstances. A group of researchers at Yale University examined 134,000 of these claims, distinguishing between those related and unrelated to MST. Unfortunately, this analysis revealed that claims submitted as a result of MST were denied more frequently than claims that were not (e.g., 27.6% of PTSD related to MST vs. 18.2% of PTSD claims unrelated to MST). Additionally, Male veterans were found to be 1.78 times more likely than female veterans to have their claims denied if they were related to MST and Black veterans were 1.39 times more likely than their non-Hispanic white peers to have their claims denied if they were related to MST. This reveals racial and gender disparities in reimbursement, furthering systemic inequities in survivor populations. The researchers conclude a clear association between race, gender, and the denial of MST-related PTSD claims, though they describe a lack of available statistics due to a lack of reports themselves. They also describe challenges related to stigma and bias, discouraging vets from reporting their MST at all. It is critical that the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the general population, continues to provide resources to military survivors of sexual violence. All survivors, regardless of gender or race, should be able to access the support that they want and deserve.

Thankfully, change has begun in the realm of sexual violence in the military. In August of 2023, President Joe Biden signed into law an executive order that changed the way that the military handles sexual assault. The order establishes that independent military prosecutors will decide whether to prosecute allegations of sexual violence, rather than military commanders. It establishes a fully independent system for the persecution of sexual violence perpetrators outside of the military chain of command in an attempt to reduce disparities in sentencing. The changes are proposed as a way to ensure fairness and equity in the military criminal justice system. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Secretary of Defense, writes “Our most critical asset as a department is our people, and our people and readiness are inextricably linked…We will remain the preeminent fighting force in the world because we strive to better take care of our people. Our values and expectations remain at the core of addressing this problem, and I have every confidence that our force will get this right.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs held a hearing on July 31st, 2023. Christopher Shays, a representative of Connecticut and a military veteran, spoke about the lack of action from the Department of Defense to protect military survivors of sexual violence. “Years of inaction at the DoD continue to speak volumes about senior leadership commitment to our service members and civil servants,” he said, “Our military’s greatest challenge should be on the battlefield, not protecting its members from being sexually assaulted”. Several representatives discussed the implementation of the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act, which aims to prevent violence against members of the military and their families. Military members who survived sexual violence during their deployment also testified to the need for a new policy in terms of the prevention of sexual violence and persecution and accountability of perpetrators. Lieutenant General Michal D. Rochelle outlined the new Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, including a “comprehensive prevention campaign” including “addressing negative social influencers, increasing peer-to-peer bystander intervention, and enhancing soldiers’ skill sets on how to stop assaults before they occur.” It is incredibly apparent that the need for such programs is dire within the military as sexual violence continues to be prevalent. Hopefully, implementing policies such as these will help to aid survivors of MST and reduce instances of sexual violence in the future.

Addressing the pervasive issue of sexual violence in the military requires multifaceted approaches that prioritize equity, accountability, and survivor support. The recent legislative and executive actions signal progress, yet more concerted efforts are needed to ensure comprehensive prevention, response, and justice mechanisms. By fostering a culture of transparency, empathy, and proactive intervention, we can strive towards a military environment where all members are safe, respected, and empowered. Together, we must continue advocating for systemic change and standing in solidarity with survivors, affirming their right to healing, dignity, and justice.


If you are a current or former member of the military who has experienced sexual violence, know that you are not alone and that your story matters. 

  • The “Beyond MST ” mobile app provides tools to help survivors of MST.
  • The website allows survivors of MST to connect with veterans of similar experiences. 
  • This Military Sexual Trauma Resource List from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides information on MST for allies and survivors
  • The Military Rape Crisis Center provides support groups, yoga sessions, and “writing to heal” sessions to survivors in Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York
  • The Military Crisis Line is a free and confidential resource available 24/7: Dial 988 and press 1, text 838255, or visit to chat online

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