A major concern for all military personnel and their families is how they will fit back into life at home after deployment—and ultimately back into civilian life when they retire from the military. Having endured and survived sexual trauma while on active duty adds another layer to that already challenging process.
Still on Active Duty
For those still on active duty, work environment issues are one challenge, especially if the perpetrator is still part of the unit and/or other members of the unit blame the victim for what happened. If the chain of command is unsympathetic, opportunities to advance may become limited. Even if none of those are problems, concern for personal safety may be high, especially if the person is dealing with PTSD.
Obtaining treatment for PTSD or other mental health issues may not be something the person wants others in their unit to know about, so there may be reluctance to pursue treatment. Inability to concentrate can affect work performance, as can time missed from work. And, while such problems can affect self-confidence and self-esteem, with unsympathetic co-workers or command it can also affect job performance ratings and future job opportunities.
For veterans making the adjustment to civilian life, challenges may be similar even if venues are different. Healthcare for MST-related problems is available regardless, but the veteran must still get connected to the local VA system and obtain appointments with providers.
Looking for a job is seldom simple—and if the veteran is also trying to cope with personal safety concerns, concentration problems, gastrointestinal problems, anger and irritability, or any of the myriad other known possible effects of MST, the challenge may be insurmountable. If alcohol or drug use has become a coping mechanism, it can further complicate life and potentially open up opportunities for negative encounters with the law.
There is, of course, a domino effect between having a job and having money to pay rent, buy food, and pay for transportation, and fears about finding a job add to the stress. Support from family and friends can be a significant help in these situations but reestablishing intimate relationships can also be affected by the experience of MST.
Female veterans often face the added challenge of being single parents, which can complicate the search for housing and employment, especially if childcare is needed. As of 2010, 30,000 single mothers had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, so this is no small problem (NCHV, n.d.).
Homelessness and MST
A 2013 study determined that, of the homeless veterans in the VHA system, 39.7% of females and 3.3% of males had experienced MST. Homeless veterans who have experienced MST had a much higher (3 to 4 times) likelihood of being diagnosed with at least one of the major mental health problems already linked to MST (Pavao, 2013; NCHV, n.d.).
A study released in 2016 found that nearly 1 in 10 veterans who had experienced MST became homeless within five years. The study considered a national sample of 601,892 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan discharged between 2001 and 2011. Among those reporting MST, the rate of homelessness was twice what it was among those not reporting MST, and males were slightly more likely than females to be homeless (Pauly, 2016).
Men are particularly vulnerable because, on top of the issues surrounding the experience of MST and concerns about masculinity, sexuality, and self-concept, men may be less likely to pursue mental health treatment, contributing to a worsening of their situation (Pauly, 2016).
The researcher noted that low social support, poor interpersonal relationships, and re-victimization are all possible consequences of MST and that “these types of problems may compromise employment and put one at risk for financial instability” (Pauly, 2016).
As to women, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans notes that women are now 8% of the total veteran population and 14.6% of the active duty military. The latter number is expected to be 16% by 2035, so the veteran population can be expected to rise as well. In 2006 there were 1,380 homeless female veterans and by 2010 the number had more than doubled to 3,328 (NCHV, n.d.).