Medals for Military Sexual Trauma: A Proposal

Carolyn Gage

On March 16, 2009, a bill titled the “Military Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Response Act”
(H.R.840) was referred to a House subcommittee. This is a bill to reduce sexual assault and domestic
violence involving members of the Armed Forces and their family members and partners through
enhanced programs of prevention and deterrence, enhanced programs of victims services, and
strengthened provisions for prosecution of assailants.
(1)  I want to propose that part of these services
and programs include the awarding of medals to victims of Military Sexual Assault.

Medals provide tangible testaments to valor, courage, loyalty. They give occasion for public
recognition, and in the cases where they are awarded posthumously, they can provide for some
closure. Finally, they offer incentive. They aggressively proclaim that surviving assault is valorous,
something to be proud of; thereby counteracting any herd-animal instinct to separate from the

The first medal for rewarding heroism by American soldiers was established by—who else?—George
Washington. It was called the Badge of Military Merit, and it was intended to recognize “any
singularly meritorious action.” The year was 1782. Later, during the Civil War, a “Medal of Valor”
was created and signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. This morphed into the “Medal of Honor,”
which is, today, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government.

The criteria for receiving the Medal of Honor is distinguishing oneself “conspicuously by gallantry
and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action
against an enemy of the United States.” After the Medal of Honor, there is the Military Cross for an
act of extraordinary heroism undertaken in the midst of great danger and at great risk to oneself.
Then there is the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Cross and so on. The Purple Heart is
awarded for being wounded or killed while in the service.

The US Military awards an array of medals for all kinds of things: for serving in a particular region
(Antarctica Service Medal), in a particular war (World War II Victory Medal), or in a unit that has
performed valorously (Army Valorous Unit Award). And, yes, there is even a gendered medal, the
Women’s Army Corps Medal, awarded to women who served in the Corps during World War II.

It’s time for the military to create a new category of medals, specifically to deal with Military Sexual
Trauma. Military Sexual Trauma has become so common, it has been designated a syndrome with
its own acronym: MST. What is MST? According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it is
“sexual harassment that is threatening or physical assault of a sexual nature.” The military’s
definition of sexual assault includes “rape; nonconsensual sodomy; unwanted inappropriate sexual
contact or fondling; or attempts to commit these acts.” These traumas occur when a person is in the
military, and the location, the genders of the people involved, and their relationship do not matter.(2)

Just how common is it? According to the website of the Military Rape Crisis Center, one in three
women in the military will be sexually assaulted. Two out of three women in the military will be
sexually harassed. Congresswoman Jane Harmon from California has done the math: “A woman
who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by
enemy fire.”

And what about the perpetrators? Two interesting statistics: First, according to Helen Benedict, the
author of three books about sexual assault, the military is waiving criminal and violent records for
more than one in ten new Army recruits. And, as Benedict notes, “When you add in the high
numbers of war-wrecked soldiers being redeployed… the picture for women looks bleak indeed.”
Second, according to the Department of Defense’s own statistics 74-85% of soldiers convicted of rape
or sexual assault leave the military with honorable discharges and their rape convictions do not
appear on their record!

And how are the women dealing with this? The real question is how are they being dealt with?
Apparently, over 90% of all females that report a sexual assault are discharged from the military
before their contract ends. From the 90%, around 85% are discharged against their wishes. Almost all
of the 85% lose their careers based on misdiagnoses that render them ineligible for military service.
These would be things like adjustment disorder, personality disorder and pre-service existing Post-
Traumatic Stress Disorder. These are conditions that would, of course, be ineligible for VA treatment
after discharge.

And speaking of PTSD, out of every other type of trauma that can occur in the military, sexual
trauma is the number one cause of PTSD. Of the women who claim to have experienced MST, 40 to
60% developed post traumatic stress disorder.

It’s important to note that victims of MST are more prone to developing PTSD than victims of sexual
trauma outside the military. Why is this? Because the longer it takes the victim to get into safe and
supportive circumstances, the more severe the PTSD. In fact, appropriate response within the first
hours, or even minutes can make a huge difference.

On a military base, this getting to a safe, supportive environment can be a problem for a number of
reasons. If the MST has occurred in the work space, this traditional “safe haven” is now a trigger for
anxiety and bad memories. The soldier who has been assaulted on the job does not have the option of
quitting, and may be required to continue working with her assailant/ harasser, demonstrating
respect and obedience for him. She remains at risk of further victimization, and, obviously, this is
tremendously stressful.

Friends or colleagues in the military, especially serving in a combat zone, may consider it
inappropriate for her to file a negative report that could be divisive, disruptive, or demoralizing to
her unit. They may not believe her, or they may find it expedient to say they don’t believe her.
Victims of MST who report, but who are not believed or who are blamed, suffer more severe
symptoms of PTSD. Failing to report, however, will result in lack of critical medical and emotional

The lesbian who is a victim of MST has another layer of stress, regarding being “outed” and
subsequently discharged. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an independent watchdog
organization over the Department of Defense’s implementation of the policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,
Don’t Pursue,” reports how lesbian-baiting is used to intimidate all women in the military:

 … [w]omen, straight and gay, are accused as lesbians when they rebuff advances by men or
report sexual abuse. Women who are top performers in nontraditional fields also face perpetual
speculation and rumors that they are lesbian

Women find that reporting an assault can result in the initiation of an investigation against them
instead of the perpetrator.

The subject of sexual assault in the military is too exhaustive for the scope of this proposal, but NOW
has done an excellent job of collecting articles about the epidemic and what appears to be a cover-up
on the part of the Pentagon, as well as research into why soldiers rape.(12)

The Proposal

1) Medal of Worth: For anyone in the service who has been a victim of Military Sexual Trauma.

2) Medal of Courage: For anyone in the service who has reported her Military Sexual Trauma.

3) Medal of Loyalty: For anyone in the service who has supported a victim of MST in reporting it to
the authorities.

4) Medal of Heroism: For anyone in the service who has supported a victim of MST in reporting a
perpetrator who is in the recipient’s unit.

5) Medal of Exceptional Valor: For any gay or lesbian in the service who reports Military Sexual

There is already a Valorous Unit Award, and I would recommend that it be awarded to any unit
that, as a unit, supports a victim of MST in reporting, especially if the perpetrator is also in the same

The sexual assault victims who are overseas should all receive Purple Hearts. They have
unquestionably been wounded. Under the criteria for the medal, a wound is defined as “an injury to
any part of the body from an outside force or agent… A physical lesion is not required.” And
certainly, these assaults are occurring “as a result of military operations while serving outside the
territory of the United States.”(13) The only thorny issue is that the enemy attack is from soldiers who
are supposed to be on the same side, but if Pat Tillman could be awarded the Purple Heart for being
a victim of “friendly fire,” why not these women who are being sexually harassed and assaulted by
their fellow soldiers in such epidemic numbers?

Gary Trudeau, Doonesbury cartoonist, had the same idea in his comic strip, when Melissa, an Iraq
veteran and MST victim, is given a candy purple heart by B.D., a man who was erroneously
awarded a Purple Heart for cutting himself on a beer can top.(14)

And, finally, it is highly appropriate to award the MST medals posthumously, and this is tragically
true when the victim has chosen to take her own life.