April 30, 2018

Why We Started: Our Story of Impacting Survivors

Shot from above of sneakers next to Passion Led Us Here on sidewalkSeven years ago, started what would impact thousands of MST survivors. We conducted military culture trainings for civilian clinicians around Illinois with the goal of getting them to sign up as volunteers or with Tricare. We wanted to increase the network of behavioral health providers in our state willing to work with veterans.

A new documentary came out called “The Invisible War.” The documentary was about military sexual assault. Thinking the film seemed interesting, we considered screening the movie and moderating a discussion.

Wanting to get the military’s take on the matter, we asked a colleague if he had seen it.

There was an awkward pause. After shuffling his feet and jingling the keys in his pocket as he thought, he said that he had heard of the film. The DoD gave them talking points about the film and hell to whoever deviated from that script. He even said that many commanders prohibited their staff from having any contact with the film; they could not be in a room where the movie played.

Curiosity piqued, we purchased a copy of this movie to discover what the military was so scared of.

The issue had been in the news with Tailhook scandal, but we really didn’t realize the scope of the military sexual assault problem. Seeing “The Invisible War” changed all that. It gave a haunting portrayal of the prevalence of the problem and the long-term impact it had on survivors.

We wanted to help.

We screened the movie at a local college and had a panel discussion after with clinicians from the VA. The reaction to the film was more than we could have ever hoped for.

People shared their stories of sexual assault while they served in the military. Other participants shared their fear, concern, or outrage. One mother came up to me crying because her daughter had just joined the military and she felt sure she would get raped. whoa… I realized we had created an idea that rape was a military-only problem. Shame on us!

We decided to screen the movie again, but this time we would invite civilian rape crisis centers to be involved and talk about how this is a huge civilian problem too. We invited military support staff to be involved, but everyone said no because they were afraid of the DoD backlash against the movie.

Only the Illinois National Guard stepped up and said they would like to be involved and to talk publicly about how they were trying to combat the problem and help survivors.

The screenings soon were not enough, as clinicians and partners asked for more information on how to help survivors.

People wanted to help, but they didn’t know how.

So we created an eight-hour training about military sexual trauma, or MST, and we had 80 people at the first training.

We have done that training and several others since that awkward pause and have now trained several thousand people about how to help MST survivors. Those clinicians report that they used our content to help an average of 2.5 survivors each. In other words, screening “The Invisible War” lead to a training that has survivors’ healing.

Over the years many colleagues and trainees have opened up about their own experiences with MST. We are still honored each time a veteran shares with me that he or she is a survivor, and we get a chance to be a small part of their healing journey. We hope that our efforts to shine a light on this issue have created a climate that is more open and aware of the issue of MST.

(This post originally appeared as a LinkedIn Story.)

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