In addition to the negative impact typically associated with sexual trauma, victims who experience it while in service face unique issues. “The sense of belonging and camaraderie one feels from military service is a huge selling point to many who join. There is a sense by many that joining the military is like joining a family,” Commander Jeffrey Millegan, MD, a Navy psychiatrist and researcher at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, told Psychiatry Advisor. “Military sexual trauma violates the heart of that trust and kinship,” he says. Two recent studies that he coauthored, which were published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, also found a connection between military sexual trauma and worse mental and physical health and work functioning among both men and women.6,7
As to why middle-aged women may be especially vulnerable to military trauma and its impact, women in this age group and beyond “may have been among the first to challenge the status quo before this cultural shift and during a period of even more pervasive sexual harassment and intolerance of these changes,” notes Dr Gibson. The greater association between military trauma and poor health in this age group could reflect aging-related health risks, which she says may be exacerbated by the traumatic experiences.
“There is some hope that the rates of military sexual assault are decreasing as the numbers, visibility, and roles of women in the military are increasing, coupled with a changing military culture that emphasizes inclusion and the prevention of military sexual trauma,” she says.
Clinicians can play a pivotal role in improving outcomes for victims of military sexual assault. “Military mental healthcare professionals must be uncompromising advocates for their patients who report sexual assault,” says Dr Millegan. “They must validate their experiences and distress while working on alleviating their suffering and restoring a sexual assault survivor’s self-efficacy,” he advises. It is also important, he notes, for mental health professionals to not view this as solely a women’s issue, since men are also affected by military sexual assault.