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VA takes big strides in treating military sex trauma victims

Aug. 12, 2014 - 01:42PM   |  
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It was in 1990 that 22-year-old Melissa Davis went to the Veterans Affairs Department office in Houston to seek treatment for depression.

Davis, a former Army specialist, joined the military at age 17. She says she was raped more than once by a superior officer at her first base. She didn’t report the assaults but told her husband, who urged her to keep quiet to avoid retaliation.

When she spoke to a counselor at the women’s clinic about the rape and her depression, Davis says the counselor “suggested I go to Alcoholics Anonymous for mental support.”

“I didn’t drink then, and I still don’t drink,” she said.

At that time — and even eight years later in 1998, when she again sought help from the Houston VA — the department did not have any treatment options for military sexual trauma, or MST.

“We didn’t know to ask the question — that was the problem,” said Dr. Deleene Menefee, staff psychologist at the Houston VA.

The situation has changed significantly since then; today there is a military sexual trauma coordinator at every VA facility, and every veteran who goes to a VA facility is screened for MST with a two-part questionnaire.

The health screening asks if the vet has experienced in-service assault or harassment. Veterans who respond positively to either are offered health care free of charge.

“Many individuals don’t come forward and report that they have experienced military sexual trauma,” a VA official said. “But by asking the questions rather than waiting for someone to come forward and tell us that … we can connect them with health care services that may be of benefit to them.”

For Davis, the lack of MST treatment in the 1990s and early 2000s forced her to look outside VA to find a private doctor for counseling, with only fitful results.

“I had outbursts and lashed out at the people I loved,” she said. “I couldn’t be happy and didn’t know what was wrong with me. I started having anxiety attacks, which I thought were heart attacks.”

Her condition continued to deteriorate until 2012, when Davis decided to give the VA another shot — and found that the department had come a long way in its approach to helping MST victims.

When Davis walked into the Houston VA two years ago, she was enrolled in the Women’s Inpatient Specialty Environment of Recovery Program (WISER), and she quickly began to improve.

“We realized that there was a subset of women not making it in individual therapy or group therapy on an outpatient basis,” said Menefee. “These were women who had complex trauma, especially women who were dealing with MST, and we created a gender safe women’s program.”

WISER, begun in 2009, is one of 20 VA programs nationwide that offers care for MST survivors who need intense treatment. The 25-day inpatient psychiatric program — specific to the Houston VA — treats female veterans living with post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma

“The most helpful thing for me was the people there who let me know I’m not alone and there is hope,” Davis said. “Even though PTSD is not curable, I learned it is treatable and it is manageable and you can bring your life back to a semblance of normal.”

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