Veteran Homelessness in a New Light: The Connection to Military Sexual Assault
By Becky Fallk, GPSLD Intern
The prevalence of sexual assault in the military directly correlates to the rates of veteran homelessness throughout the United States. When service members experience sexual assault during their time in the military, they are likely to find themselves either with depression or PTSD trauma after their service is over, leading to job complications and issues finding a stable place to live. Prior to their decision to enlist, these military members think of their chosen path as more than a choice of career. It is a lifelong commitment to serve the United States and allow all citizens to be able to live freely without the constant fear of intrusion. Military servicemen and servicewomen hold a prestigious job that is held to a high standard. Often the decision to enlist in the military derives from generations of family military allegiance and the idea that service is personally rewarding. Others decide to enlist in the military based on the financial security and benefits it provides. However, no amount of financial security or personal reward is worth what some people endure through their time of service. One bad experience can lead directly to a downward spiral for service members.
The Military and Sexual Assault
While not every person enlisted in the military experiences sexual assault, it is not an uncommon occurrence either. Sexual assault is defined as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.[i] According to a 2014 Rand Corp. report, about a quarter of female veterans and one percent of male veterans report having been sexually assaulted while on active duty.[ii] This statistic almost makes sexual assault sound like a danger only for females, and nearly unheard of for males- which is actually quite untrue. Also in 2014, the Pentagon released the statistic that, of the 20,300 service members sexually assaulted, 10,600 were men, which is a rate over 52%.[iii] Not only are there nearly four reports of sexual assault per 1,000 service members, but over half of the assaults actually happen to men.
One thing to keep in mind when reading these statistics is that information only exists on sexual assaults that are reported. A further study by the Rand Corporation and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicated that only 13% of male service members reported their sexual assaults, compared to 40% of women.[iv] By examining these reports and studies, one can see that there is already an indication of a pattern of sexual assault in the military. By noting that the pattern only accounts for a fraction of the actual problem, it is clear that the amount of military sexual assaults is of extreme prevalence to society. From this information it is more than fair to infer that there are enough military sexual assaults to be able to constitute them as reoccurring problem rather than a rare occurrence.
How Military Sexual Assault Leads to Homelessness
The low reporting rate of sexual assault, especially for men, could in part be attributed to embarrassment or fear of loss of masculinity, which is a symptom of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). MST “refers to sexual assault and to repeated, threatening sexual harassment occurring during military service.”[v] In one case-study highlighted by The Guardian, one victim of military sexual assault felt “suicidal, humiliated and alone,” leading him to return to his home in New York. He feared police knocking on his parents’ doors to find him and force his return to the very ship that made him feel so helpless to begin with. Therefore, he resorted to living in abandoned cars and on the streets by himself.[vi] In similar cases, the shame experienced by males surrounding issues that include masculinity, sexuality, and self-concept make it less likely that they will seek mental-health treatment. Lack of treatment potentially leads to worsening psychiatric symptoms and, ultimately, homelessness- thereby officially adding homelessness to the list of MST’s public health consequences.[vii] However, even service members who report their sexual assault are subject to lack of medical treatment. Lack of medical treatment encompasses everything from no treatment at all, to the absence of treatment other than a routine pill prescription. By not receiving help, members who report their sexual assault are likely to be diagnosed with a variety of illnesses making them unfit for duty, ranging from anxiety or depression to a personality disorder. A discharge from duty leaves many of these service members without a job, and therefore without an income or home.
On the other hand, service members often have disorders that are not necessarily visible on the surface level. In many cases, sexual assault sparks psychiatric problems and mental illness among military members, including PTSD. After leaving their military service, individuals may have flashbacks to the assault, or fears that are a result of the assault, making it difficult to complete everyday tasks. Victims with illnesses such as PTSD fear things such as finding safe and secure housing, and these fears are often for good reason. In the last five years, nearly one in sixteen housing services programs for veterans surveyed by the GAO reported incidents of sexual harassment or assault on women residents.[viii] Unsafe living conditions that perpetuate the sexual assault that the victim has already encountered make the transition from military life to a civilian life nearly impossible.
When everyday tasks produce negative reaction, the victim not only lives entirely in fear, but also has an inhibited ability to find a job that would not cause adverse responses often resulting in loss of income and homelessness. Military sexual assault has the potential to cause victims to suffer from low social support, poor interpersonal relationships, and revictimization. These consequences may “compromise employment and put one at risk for financial instability… ultimately… [leading] to homelessness.”[ix] Another potential consequence includes resorting to drugs and alcohol. If a victim tries to get and keep a job, but cannot do so due to his or her illness, he or she may give up and yield to drugs. Similarly, a victim of military sexual assault often is so depressed that they turn to alcohol to try and “forget” what happened to them during their time of service, often leading to addiction. Once a victim of military sexual assault ends up with alcohol and drug addictions, homelessness is a leading result.
How Can This Problem Be Combatted?
It is essential that awareness of military sexual assault become more widespread. As of now, the issue remains prevalent to a dangerous degree. The rates of sexual assault remain high and the second-hand results of assault are rising rapidly, such as in the case of homelessness. The number of homeless women veterans has doubled from 1,380 in FY 2006 to 3,328 in FY 2010.[x] In order to prevent this from recurring, there needs to be both responsiveness around the issue of sexual assault and concrete solutions. For instance, holding officials to a higher accountability standard and providing service members with more resources in order to feel comfortable reporting instances of sexual assault would go a long way. The responsibility then lies on the military to make sure that accusations are thoroughly investigated.
By making sure that investigations always occur and victims are provided necessary counseling or resources needed, society as a whole will benefit. For one, the numbers of sexual assaults will decline over time because offenders will learn that they cannot get away with assault, and risk a high chance of prosecution and discharge for their actions. It will also benefit victims by preventing them from succumbing to poor conditions such as homelessness after they return to civilian life. It has been found that those who reported experiencing sexual assault or harassment while in the military were twice as likely to become homeless within five years of those who did not.[xi] By providing victims with proper support, counseling, and assets after instances of sexual assault, they will be set up on a less treacherous path for their future.
Given the frequency of sexual assault cases in the military, there are an increasing number of resources available to those who are currently going through or have gone through pervasive experiences during their time of service.[xii]
The Department of Defense provides a number of resources to active duty service members:
Self Helpline (https://www.safehelpline.org/): Provides 24/7 confidential help, support, and information worldwide
Safe HelpRoom (https://www.safehelpline.org/about-safe-helproom): Connects a secure community of survivors to each other 24/7 in a moderated, online platform
Self-Care App (https://safehelpline.org/about-mobile): Allows for the creation of a customized self-care plan, in addition to a connection to all of the Safe Helpline resources from anywhere in the world
Request Information: Text your ZIP code or installation/base name to 55-247 (in the U.S.) or 202.470.5546 (outside the U.S.) to receive a text back with information on the resources requested
For those service members separating or retiring from Military Service in need of assistance, Safe Helpline has a database of Transitioning Service Member resources to help make a survivor of sexual assault’s transition process easier. (https://www.safehelpline.org/TSM-search.cfm)
A veteran who is a survivor of sexual assault also has access to resources to aid in the recovery process, even if the crime was not reported when it occurred:
The MST Coordinator at local Veteran’s Affair’s medical facilities (http://www.va.gov/directory/guide/home.asp?isflash=1) are available and trained to assist, as are local Vet Centers (http://www.vetcenter.va.gov/).
[iii] Sec. Carter, A., & Dr. Galbreath, N. (2015, May 1). Department of Defense Press Briefing on Sexual Assault in the Military in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room. Speech presented at Press Operations in The Pentagon, Washington, DC. Retrieved November 22, 2016.
[xi] Brignone, E., BS, Gundlapalli, A. V., MD, PhD, MS, & Blais, R. K., PhD. (2016, June). Differential Risk for Homelessness Among US Male and Female Veterans With a Positive Screen for Military Sexual Trauma. JAMA Psychiatry, 73(6), 582-589. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0101