This article is part 4 in the five-part series, “The Battlefield and the Barracks: Two War Fronts for Women Soldiers. “
Nearly 90 percent of soldiers wounded in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – some 35,000 – survived battle injuries, thanks to breakthroughs in US state-of-the art military medicine, among them, surgical techniques, regenerative medicine and prosthetics. Neither the Department of Defense (DoD) nor the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), though, was prepared with the same cutting-edge treatment for the one in three women soldiers in those same wars – an estimated 70,000 – who were sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers.
The VHA is the agency within the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) responsible for picking up the pieces of lives injured and shattered
by combat, war trauma and military sexual assault. It will be faced, over the next months and years, with a tsunami of severe injury and illness from the DoD’s largely feckless sexual assault prevention programs.
Following the first Persian Gulf War, a series of Congressional hearings on women veterans’ issues in 1992 led to authorizing the VA to provide outreach and counseling for women veterans who had suffered military sexual assault, services that were extended to male veterans soon after. By 1999, the VA put in place a universal screening program for military sexual trauma (MST) for all veterans using their services. Since 2004, those who have screened positive for MST are eligible for free medical treatment for any MST-related illness, injury or mental health condition. Each VA facility has assigned a MST coordinator to supervise the screening and treatment referral process and provide education and training for clinicians.
All of these initiatives are crucial, essential and rightful for the tens of thousands of veteran survivors. Yet, they are only as effective as the outreach to sexual trauma survivors, the percent of women veterans using the VA medical system, the MST screening protocol, the understanding and recognition of complex health sequelae from sexual trauma, the clinical talent and compassion of the health providers and each VA facility’s capacity of treatment.