VA screenings yield data on military sexual trauma
November 18, 2008
A VA study found that about 15 percent
of female veterans of the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan who use VA health care
experienced sexual assault or harassment
during their military service. The rate
among men was much lower—less than 1
The study was presented Oct. 28 at the
American Public Health Association
annual meeting. The researchers examined
screening data on more than 125,000
veterans of operations Enduring Freedom
and Iraqi Freedom who were seen at any
VA facility between September 2001 and
"Rates obtained from VA screening
cannot be used to estimate the actual rate
of military sexual trauma experiences for
all those serving in the military," noted
coauthor Rachel Kimerling, PhD, of the
Palo Alto branch of VA’s National Center for PTSD, “but our
results do help guide mental health treatment for veterans in our
health care system.” Kimerling is also with VA’s Center for Health
Both men and women who said they were sexually assaulted or
repeatedly harassed in the military—termed military sexual trauma
(MST) by VA—were more likely to have a diagnosis of a mental
health condition than those who did not report MST. Women with
MST had a 59 percent higher risk for mental health problems,
while the risk among men with MST was 40 percent higher. The
most common conditions linked to MST were depression, PTSD,
anxiety, adjustment disorders and substance abuse disorders.
"These data highlight the importance of VA's universal screening
policy and early intervention among veterans who have experienced
sexual trauma, to prevent long-term consequences," said lead author
Joanne Pavao, MPH, of the National Center for PTSD.
Under VA policy, all male and female veterans are screened for
MST. Free treatment for MST-related conditions is provided at all
VA health care facilities.
A related VA study published in June in the journal Psychiatric
Services found that VA's MST screening program has boosted rates
of mental health treatment. The study examined the rates of VA
mental health care use in the three-month period following screening
for 573,640 veterans screened in 2005. The rates of positive screens
were 19.5 percent for women and 1.2 percent for men.
According to the website of the Department of Defense Sexual
Assault Prevention and Response Office, "[DoD] does not tolerate
sexual assault and has implemented a comprehensive policy that
reinforces a culture of prevention, response and accountability that
ensures the safety, dignity and well-being of all members of the
Armed Forces." For 2007, there were 2,688 total reports of sexual
assault involving service members, both deployed and nondeployed.
Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the DoD office, told USA
Today, "There is concern about the number of sexual assaults, and
we’re working very hard to prevent them."
The study by Kimerling, Pavao and their team was funded by
VA Health Services Research and Development.
This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of VA Research Currents.