Sexual assault is a crime that often takes a long-term toll on victims, who may struggle to recover from the trauma for years, even decades. To ensure victims have the help they need after a sexual assault, support from leadership is critical. When commanders and first sergeants first learn that a Soldier in their unit has been sexually assaulted, they may feel they are not qualified to provide them support or they don’t know what to say, but they should not avoid the survivor or the situation, said Lt. Col. La'Shonia White, Social Work Staff Officer and Suicide Risk Management Program Manager at the Office of the Surgeon General.
“It’s important that commanders reach out to the service member,” said White. “They feel more supported by command when the commander and first sergeant ask them what they need.”
Once they learn of the assault, commanders should have an initial conversation with their Soldier that offers support and compassion. It's possible that sexual assault victims may cope with the trauma in unhealthy ways, including drinking, aggression and engaging in risky behavior. During the conversation they should convey that while every Soldier’s reaction to trauma is different, the commander and first sergeant are there to ensure the Soldier has the help they need so their trauma does not result in unhealthy coping mechanisms that could further negatively impact their career and/or their life, White said.
“Have a conversation with them about what is going on and impress upon them how important it is for them to seek help,” White said. “Listen to the service member, and find out what they need, and really encourage behavioral health as well as involvement with the SHARP program” and other victim-related support services.
Leaders should learn about the impact of trauma and what Soldiers experience when they file a report. Unrestricted reports can give commanders better insight into the assault which can help them offer better-aligned support.
White suggests commanders express understanding, convey that privacy is important and that only people who need to know will know about the assault, and encourage their Soldier to pay attention to themselves and notice if they are starting to engage in unhealthy behavior like excessive drinking.
“When you are in a lot of emotional pain sometimes you make poor decisions in an attempt to numb or avoid the pain,” White said. A conversation with the Soldier by the commander and first sergeant will ensure that Soldiers get the mental health help they need before they spiral into self-destructive behavior that can also result in UCMJ.
For the command team, it is important to realize that if a Soldier in their unit starts to exhibit these unhealthy behaviors that are out of the norm, it may be due to a sexual assault or other trauma. Soldiers can get help through services like behavioral health, Military and Family Life Counseling, a chaplain, or Military OneSource.
White said other behavior changes sexual assault victims may express include sadness, depression, anxiety, feeling uncomfortable talking in groups, withdrawing, expressing irritability, and gaining or losing weight. Victims may also be at increased risk of suicidal ideation. Additionally, men who are sexually assaulted may not express emotion in the same way, but may become more aggressive and easily agitated, White said.
Trauma can also manifest in sleep deprivation, as sexual assault victims may be having nightmares. This can cause them to be late to formation, take naps on the job, or make them unable to concentrate at work resulting in their performance tanking, White said.
Commanders and first sergeant should be aware of behavior changes that may be a sign of trauma and be ready to engage in a conversation with their Soldiers. If they don’t know what to say to their Soldier, they can reach out to behavioral health for help on how to start the conversation.
“It’s best to address the issue upfront,” White said, while ensuring they remain respectful of the survivor’s boundaries. “(Soldiers) appreciate when their commander’s and first sergeant’s actions reflect honesty and genuine compassion.”