Thriving After Sexual Assault in the Military

sexual assault in the military

I was impressed recently when the new United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced:

On my first full day as secretary of defense, I committed that we must do more as a department to counter the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military. As I stated then — this is a leadership issue, and we will lead.

Clearly a more committed response by the top military leadership is needed on preventing men and women from experiencing sexual assault, sexual harassment and relationship violence while in the military. But leadership must also be aware that many young recruits come into the military to escape household and social environments that are permeated with child abuse, sexual assault and unhealthy abusive relationships. They bring these experiences with them, and may end up finding in the armed services more to escape and fear than perhaps what they left behind.

Looking for a New Life

True, one of the most common reasons people join the military is because they feel drawn to serving their country. This sense of duty, or a “calling to service,” can arise from their patriotic values or the desire to do something meaningful. But since young people largely develop their attitudes and behavior around sexual relationships in middle and high school, they may also come into the military having already been either a perpetrator or a survivor of a sexual assault or an unhealthy relationship in their young lives.

That means those who have a propensity to perpetrate may continue that behavior unchecked in the military while the victims – now survivors – of pre-enlistment violence and abuse may not be able wipe their trauma-slate clean even as they have enlisted to find a new life. Perhaps some think that no one will know or care about their past trauma history in the military while others are propelled by the prospect of getting free training and education in the service so that they can change the trajectory of their lives going forward for the better.

The Impact of Trauma Compounded

Whatever the draw of these civilians to military service, they are unlikely to be free of trauma there.  According to a July 2021 report of the Independent Review Commission (IRC) on Countering Sexual Assault in the Military, there are 20,000 service members who experience sexual assault every year. Less than 8,000 of these men and women report those sexual assaults and less than 5,000 of those are unrestricted reports — meaning the victim has said that he or she wants a full investigation. Ultimately, only a fraction of those will end up with any kind of action at all in the military justice system.

So, the experience of these victims in the civilian world prior to their enlistment may, in fact, mirror what may face in the military.  They will be exposed to interpersonal violence, abuse and trauma and find no justice in the prosecution of those crimes. Instead, they will face a compounding of their trauma from these new assaults and feel like their disclosures – which are excruciatingly hard to report — won’t be taken seriously. Sometimes even if they are believed, the rank, gender or job title of the perpetrator will give them a free pass.

Triggering the Layers of Trauma

If you layer the trauma of such assaults while in the military on top of what violence or abuse they might have experienced prior to their enlistment, the trajectory of their lives becomes much more complicated and fretful. This is particularly true if these abuse victims, barely survivors, have not dealt with the past wounds of their childhood or teen years and instead, they have papered over the impacts of that trauma.  At this stage, they have barely made the transition from victim to survivor in their lives, let alone beyond that to reaching a third stage of trauma recovery as a “thriver.”

Trauma survivors carry the heavy burden of low self-esteem, emotional fear, shame and guilt. Hopelessness is heavy, particularly when their dream that military service will be a “new life” for them is shattered by the impact of being abused and violated in that setting too. Survivors may also be depressed, appear lost, be in pain from physical injuries as a result of the assault or have other health problems.

Furthermore, they can easily get “triggered” and move back into feeling the desperation of their past trauma.  Triggers can include sights, sounds, smells, or thoughts that remind them of the traumatic event in some way. Some triggers are obvious, others are less clear. For example, if they were attacked on a sunny day, seeing a bright blue sky might make them upset. Also, memories of a traumatic event can bring back feelings of being on edge, anxious or panicked.

But many, if not most of them, are deeply worried that their lives will never get any better. In this state of mind, they may see the impacts of abuse and violence as forever defining their life, permanently damaging and definitely limiting their ability to recover and heal whether they are in the military or not.

The Road to Recovery

Sometimes I see this kind of damage from trauma in the looks of pain on the women’s faces as they come to one of the My Avenging Angel WorkshopsTM that I have conducted for over 20 years for women who have experienced abuse (domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse). I see it in the way they carry their bodies or talk about their future without any hope. Still, they want to believe that someone or something somewhere, can make it all better. They’ll even accept a “band-aid” approach so the pain, fear and disappointment will stop for some period of time.

Lora, a past workshop participant, described how working with me helped her.

When I went to the first session of Susan’s workshop, I didn’t know what to expect. My expectations were of an open forum where each of us would tell our stories and grieve our sorry existences together with Susan’s support. Luckily, that was not Susan’s intention. Susan was simply asking me to consider a part of me untouched by the abuse. Could this part of me put the abuse aside and motivate me to search for my true passion? I knew this part of myself, not well, but I believed there was a center core that no one had disturbed. Susan encouraged me to invite that part out and talk awhile, dream awhile and grieve our years of separation.

 I call Lora’s opening up to the part of us that is untouched by the abuse as finding or making contact with the Happy Person Inside You. It is one of the Seven Steps to Thriving After Abuse that I have developed as part of the Thriver Zone Motivational Model.

Thriving After Trauma as a Standard for the Military

 Based on the trainings I have done to date with the military and the civilians I have met who work in the military as victim advocates, I believe Secretary of Defense Austin should be emphasizing one of the key recommendations he has accepted in the July 2021 report. It is under Line of Effort #4 – Victim Care and Support  and it states

“4.3 Center the survivor to facilitate healing and restoration.”

The kind of healing and restoration the military needs to foster and accomplish for abuse victims in its ranks is for them to take the journey from victim to survivor to thriver!

I would describe the journey as:

“ . . . a process of healing by which survivors can manifest a life of power and purpose that brings positive energy and emotion to the pursuit of clear, attainable goals so they can stabilize their lives emotionally, financially and socially after abuse.”

But better yet, here’s how Tawanda describes thriving as a journey beyond abuse.  She is one of the seven Thriver Success Stories in my third book in the Thriver Zone trilogy, Living in the Thriver Zone, A Celebration of Living Well as the Best Revenge.

Thriving to me is about living beyond the abuse, beyond the pain. Where I am today, compared to three years ago, is like I’m walking on water. Now I believe that there is nothing that can stop me except for me. I still struggle with my Inner Critic and how to keep it quiet, but that battle is nowhere near what it was before. Today I tell myself “I want to do this” and “I can do it.” There is no more “Oh, I can’t” or “What’s someone going to think of me?” if I do this or that. Nope! I’m going for it! I’m doing it! I shortcut all that negative chatter. I have NO time for that anymore! In my journey from survivor to thriver, I have set my goals, kept my energy focused, quieted my Inner Critic and remembered my vision for the future. It feels like I’m living my fantasy in real life! It is so cool! No one else has ever done something like that before!

 My work now is to impress on the United States military the importance of adding to its support for victims and survivors of abuse this critical third step in the healing and restoration of members of the armed forces.  I think these men and women who serve our country deserve nothing less and can only be best prepared to defend it and the ideals we stand for if they are not just surviving, but thriving after abuse.

Contact me at if you have connections or ideas for how I might accomplish this important mission.       


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