There's an unspoken war going on within our military, and it's not just happening on the battlefield. This silent conflict is imperiling our female soldiers in all the places where they should feel safest: on the base, in training, and in the company of their fellow service members. A military sexual trauma epidemic is sweeping across our armed forces, and one third of our female military personnel say they have fallen victim to this invisible wound.
More than 50 sexual assaults occurred per day between October 2010 and September 2011, with women being the most common victims and high-ranking men the most likely perpetrators. If there's any doubt of the seriousness of this growing issue, just look to Lackland Air Force Base. At the Texas base, where every Air Force recruit receives training, more than 40 women have come forward with heart-wrenching stories of unwanted sexual advances at the hands of their instructors. The first instructor embroiled in the Lackland scandal was found guilty of raping one female recruit and sexually assaulting numerous others. A dozen other male instructors face charges and investigations. And with each passing day, more cases of MST are surfacing among women who until now have concealed their trauma out of fear.
MST is an unspoken war in which our women are pitted against a culture that says they're to blame. The brave female veterans I work with describe a numbness that radiates through every aspect of their daily life, preventing them from experiencing emotions freely. They share stories of sleeplessness and shame. And they explain how the belief that they "asked for it" permeates through every discussion with the military officials tasked to tackle the MST problem. Without an avenue for emotional healing, these strong women who have given so much are left to cope alone.
But there's a path to healing in this unspoken war: open discourse. By listening compassionately with a nonjudgmental ear, positive psychologists can help our veterans navigate the tough waters of MST and other emotional wounds of war. I've seen the pain turn to hope as these women acknowledge their strength in surviving assault; it can happen, but it takes mutual openness and a commitment to cutting out the stigma. It would take a lifetime to change the military's culture toward women, and that's why we need to provide our sexually traumatized veterans with immediate support and treatment.