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Close to Home: Providing care for the forgotten warriors

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While the anti-sexual violence movement has brought America’s understanding of the issue into the light of day, veterans are still left in the dark.

In 2004, the Veterans Health Administration coined the term “military sexual trauma” to refer to experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that a veteran experienced during his or her military service. The term encompasses any psychological trauma resulting from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature or sexual harassment that occurred while the veteran was serving on active duty, on active duty for training or during inactive duty training.

Repeated sexual harassment in any workplace can have lasting impacts on a person’s health, but it is especially toxic in the military, where one’s work affects every part of a person’s life. While sexual harassment, assault and violence can affect people of any gender, they are largely directed against women — both in the military and in civilian life.

In the Department of Veterans Affairs’ national screening program, every veteran seen for health care is asked whether he or she has experienced military sexual trauma. The VA provided data that indicated that about 1 in 4 female veterans have experienced MST. The Department of Defense made a shocking acknowledgment that it believed less than 15 percent of military sexual assault victims report the matter to a military authority.

Apart from the physical realities, military sexual trauma can be psychologically devastating to its victims. Survivors often suffer from symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 24,000 veterans reside in Sonoma County and further estimates that just more than 10 percent of those veterans are women. Throughout the state, there are numerous organizations that cater exclusively to the needs of female veterans. None currently exist in Sonoma County.

Female victims of MST aren’t predisposed to congregate in the arenas frequently populated by male veterans. As a result, female veterans may feel alone and often are isolated from the resources that exist for veterans. This lack of connection leaves MSTs survivor unaware that there is help available.

In Santa Rosa, Verity offers services to survivors of all forms of sexual trauma. Verity also offers specific free services for veterans and active-duty members of the military suffering from MST and other types of trauma, regardless of gender.

Verity has operated under other names such as Women Against Rape and United Against Sexual Assault since 1974. Today, Verity facilitates healing and promotes the prevention of violence by providing counseling, advocacy, intervention and education to people of all ages and genders throughout Sonoma County.

In 2015, Verity established the Forgotten Warriors Project. It was funded by the California Veterans Mental Health Program and the Veteran Services Office of the Human Services Department of Sonoma County.

The Forgotten Warriors Project provides free individual counseling, assists in the filing of VA disability claims and offers referrals to health care and legal resources. More information is available by calling 707-545-7270 or visiting ourverity.org.

Veterans, you aren’t alone. We are here to provide compassion, safety and support.

Dave Prentice is veterans case coordinator and Caitlin Quinn is communications director for Verity.

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