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Senators propose using peers to help survivors of military sexual trauma

Arman Zhenikeyev
Getty Images / Corbis RF Stills

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men report that they have experienced military sexual trauma (MST), which the VA describes as sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service.

Speaking in Hartford Tuesday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that cases are underreported.

“Many, many survivors and victims of military sexual trauma simply don’t even complain about it. Why? Because they fear retaliation or they are ashamed,” Blumenthal said.

He and other federal lawmakers are now sponsoring a legislative proposal that would authorize peer support specialists for survivors of military sexual trauma.

Victims and survivors would be able to seek out those services locally at the nearest VA facility to their residence.

Blumenthal said the measure would allow survivors and victims of MST access to a peer who would advocate on their behalf. He said a peer support network could serve as a deterrent to perpetrators, encourage more reporting military-wide and provide relief for victims.

The measure was introduced to the U.S. Senate in June by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) and referred to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman and Blumenthal are co-sponsors.

“It’s long overdue,” Blumenthal said. “Survivors now have precious little in the way of resources. They have no one to advocate for them, no one to really represent, or guide, or advise them in most instances, especially when they make that initial decision to come forward.”

Denise Florio, a peer support specialist with Wounded Warrior Project who spoke alongside Blumenthal Tuesday, said she is optimistic the measure will gain traction in Washington, D.C.

“We have battle buddies in the military. So this is just another way to carry that on,” Florio said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people just don’t want to deal with it.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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