Military Sexual Trauma during Deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan: Prevalence, Readjustment, and Gender Differences

Article excerpt

This study examines military sexual trauma (MST) in men and women deployed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A diverse sample of 470 (408 men and 62 women) completed anonymous self-report questionnaires. Seventy-seven reported MST: 51 (12.5%) men and 26 (42%) women. MST was significantly related to symptoms and readjustment and most strongly with intimacy problems. Of those with MST, 73% also reported exposure to war-related stressors. Gender differences revealed that women reported a higher prevalence of MST, but men were more likely to endorse MST with multiple war-related stressors. However, no gender differences were found on reports of symptoms, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or readjustment. Implications of these results are discussed.

Keywords: military sexual trauma; conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; OIF/OEF; gender differences

This study investigates the prevalence of military sexual trauma (MST) using anonymous data collection methods, in a diverse sample of men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, otherwise known as Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF), and the associated reports of symptoms and psychosocial readjustment. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines MST as

sexual harassment that is threatening in character or physical assault of a sexual nature that occurred while the victim was in the military, regardless of geographic location of the trauma, gender of the victim, or the relationship to the perpetrator.

Historically, reports have shown consistent high rates of MST (Goldzweig, Balekian, Rolon, Yano, & Shekelle, 2006; Suris & Lind, 2008). A review of 21 studies found MST rates of sexual harassment from 55% to 70% and rates of sexual assault from 11% to 48% among women Veterans (Goldzweig et al., 2006). A review of 25 studies found MST rates of sexual assault ranging from 20% to 43% among women Veterans (Suris & Lind, 2008). One of the 25 studies reported a lower rate (0.4%), and another study reported a higher rate (71%).

However, MST is not solely a woman's issue, although the prevalence among men appears to be much lower than for women, and there are fewer studies on men who report MST. Kimmerling, Gima, Smith, Street, and Frayne (2007) reviewed a large national sample of Veterans and found approximately 22% of women and 1% of men screened positive for MST. In the Suris and Lind (2008) review, eight studies included men. Seven reported MST rates between 1% and 4%. One study examining male participants who were being screened for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reported a 12% prevalence of MST. None of the studies reviewed by Suris and Lind (2008) included verbal sexual harassment or unwanted sexual advances that have been associated with higher rates of MST (Goldzweig et al., 2006). Murdoch, Polusny, Hodges, and O'Brien (2004) examined the prevalence of MST among men and women seeking VA disability benefits for PTSD. Among the men, 6.5% of combat Veterans and 16.5% of noncombat Veterans reported MST or postservice sexual assault. Among women, 69% of combat Veterans and 86.6% of noncombat Veterans reported MST or postservice sexual assault. Sexual assault was defined as someone attempting to or successfully forcing the victim to have sex against his or her will.

Sexual assault during times of war is also not a new phenomenon. A study on women deployed in the Persian Gulf War found that 8% reported assault, 31% reported physical harassment, and 61% reported verbal harassment (Wolfe, Brown, & Bucsela, 1992).

However, only four studies to date have examined MST among those deployed in OEF/OIF (Dutra et al., 2011; Haskell et al, 2010; Katz, Bloor, Cojucar, & Draper, 2007; Kimmerling et al, 2010). The Katz et al. (2007) study examined 18 women seeking services at a VA medical center and found a 56% prevalence of MST. Those with MST had a higher endorsement of symptoms and higher clinician ratings of distress. …