MST: A deep wound

What is behind this three-letter acronym? Military Sexual Trauma. It is a type of psychological trauma caused after experiencing sexual abuse, harassment or even rape in the military by someone in the chain of command. An event that isn’t as uncommon as one would expect. 

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), part of the Department of Defense, is responsible for overseeing the sexual assault policy. Public statements from Congress and the Pentagon have always insisted on its ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach in sex crimes in the armed forces. SAPRO is undoubtedly not delivering the justice and protection victims need.


Women who report such crimes face revictimization. They are often discouraged from submitting to a rape kit and medical examination. Women are frequently caught between a sword and a wall: the same soldier who has harassed or abused them, might also have saved someone else’s life. How can you, as a young soldier then, report a ‘hero’? Who would support you? And why? Aggressors may have access to arms and live close by. As a result, many of the women who’ve undergone sexual harassment opt to stay silent for fear of retaliation. It is a dead-end street.

One of the most notorious cases was that of Elle Helmer and other seven U.S. service members who filed a federal lawsuit back in 2012. The Department of Defense failed to take disruptive steps to confront the problem and make offenders accountable. And what was the verdict? The women were investigated and discharged, but offenders endured hardly any repercussion. 

MST survivors who do decide to formally report endure many obstacles. If they decide to proceed, it is typically quite a thorny process. In the most extreme cases, it’s the victims’ families who are left to fight for the accountability of these crimes. 


A striking case recently reignited the outrage of sexual crimes within the U.S. forces. The young soldier Vanessa Guillén disappeared from her Army Base in Texas after telling her family about being sexually harassed and feeling unsafe. Two months later, her remains were found near the remains of another soldier who went missing last August. Her ´alleged´aggressor, Aaron David Robinson, committed suicide afetr Guillen’s family pressed the Department of Justice for charges. 

Social media has allowed for other stories of sexual violence and harassment to be heard. The Twitter hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen has encouraged numerous young soldiers and veterans in the military to speak up and demand justice. Victims have lost confidence in military justice and evidence shows that assaults continue to increase. 

This recent turn of events has created a momentum for Congress and the Military to address sexual assault in the force. Albeit, it takes more than Commissions deliberating on how to shape legislation to truly change the military justice system. 

We need a better legislative action. We need to change the systemic response. We need an independent agency for soldiers to openly report on sexual harassment and violence. 

The aftermath of choosing to look away is that women in the military will continue to make strategic battlefield assessments in what’s supposed to be a safe space.