Research at Boston University

A Different Kind of Danger

By Noelle Graves

Women have served in the US military with distinction since the Revolutionary War, working a range of roles from nurses and officers to cooks and truck drivers. New research shows that the dangers they face aren’t always on the battlefield; half of women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan reported being sexually harassed or assaulted by their comrades-in-arms.

The findings, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, were the result of a three-year study led by Amy Street, associate professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

“The numbers are very high and very concerning,” says Street, a clinical psychologist and deputy director of the Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at the Veterans Administration hospital in Boston.

The survey is the first of its kind to scientifically document that deployed troops are experiencing military sexual trauma (MST). Its findings could guide PTSD program funding and therapy paradigms, Street says.

“People are often surprised when they hear these findings because we talk a lot about combat stress and combat exposure, which are real stressors, but we don’t talk as much about the issue of sexual assault in the military and the extent to which it is happening,” she says. “It’s important that we talk about these things as well.”

Street earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Georgia and has studied women and their unique responses to PTSD in clinical settings for nearly 15 years. She developed a focus on military servicewomen during a clinical internship with the VA Boston Healthcare System.

In late 2009 and early 2010, Street and a team of researchers mailed surveys to 2,300 servicemen and women in all military branches who were deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. Women represent about 15 percent of military personnel. This small number can lead to scientifically unreliable results in surveys, as such a small sampling doesn’t typically produce meaningful conclusions. However, Street’s survey respondents were divided evenly between men and women, giving researchers a far larger—and more scientifically accurate—pool from which to draw conclusions.

Questions focused on deployment stressors, such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, gender harassment, unit support, and combat and other war-related trauma; postdeployment mental health, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and clinically significant alcohol use; and associations between deployment stressors and PTSD.

The anonymous results, compiled and analyzed over three years, showed 48 percent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment from fellow service members such as sexual talk, jokes, or comments, and 23 percent of women reported an unwanted sexual experience from service members that ranged from inappropriate touching to groping and rape. Some women reported coercion or quid pro quo experiences where superior officers expected sexual favors to redress duty-related problems. Among the male respondents, 1 percent of men reported sexual assault and 11 percent said they had been sexually harassed.

“I think it would be naïve to say sexual harassment is new to the military, but it’s the first time it’s been documented among OIF and OEF veterans,” Street says.

The Department of Defense also conducts studies of this nature, and its findings show similar kinds of experiences, but lower numbers of affected women. Street postulated servicewomen might answer questions from the Department of Veterans Affairs more candidly than they would questions from the Pentagon.

The survey results come at a troubling time for the US military, which is grappling with a sexual assault “crisis,” as deemed by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Last spring, a troubling pattern emerged as three officers overseeing military sexual assault prevention programs were themselves accused of crimes ranging from misbehavior to forcing a subordinate into prostitution.

Street’s research provides lawmakers the data needed to funnel program funding appropriately to aid servicemen and women who have experienced a military sexual trauma. Numerous studies among civilian and military populations document that sexual trauma is associated with a range of mental health issues, including PTSD and other anxiety disorders, depression, mood disorders, and substance abuse problems.

Among military servicewomen, the rates of sexual harassment and assault are translating into thousands of additional cases of PTSD as they return home from war with psychological wounds that never completely heal.

“It’s important for us, as a society, to say, ‘This is not okay,’” Street says. “We all have to be committed to this issue so that we can provide excellent care to the women and men who have been exposed to these types of stressors—and so that, eventually, we can end sexual trauma in the military.”

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