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Veterans put their troubles on the line in St. Cloud

The T-shirts that were decorated anonymously and hung as silent testimonials about sexual assault spoke volumes about the pain and betrayal often felt by the victims.

But the fact that the donated T-shirts were hand decorated by men and women who served in the U.S. military made the display at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System also compelling.

"A Clothesline event has a great deal of visual impact ... encouraging victims to begin to confront the issues military sexual trauma may cause," said Barry Venable, public affairs officer at the St. Cloud VA.

The St. Cloud VA hosted a Clothesline Project as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month; the public exhibit about military sexual trauma began Tuesday in the auditorium and ends Thursday.

More than 30 T-shirts were used in the project as a visible reminder of the toll sexual assault can take on men and women, particularly on those who do not seek treatment.

"I think it is well established in the public mind that sexual assault is an issue in military service. What is not as well established is that VA offers treatment for MST, and that is the main reason we are holding the event," Venable said.

Military sexual trauma

Military sexual trauma is defined by the Department of Veterans Affairs as sexual assault or "repeated, threatening sexual harassment" during military service.

More than 3,370 reports of sexual assault were filed in the military in 2012, according to the Department of Defense. Legislation to change the way sexual crimes are handled in the military has recently moved forward in Congress.

"There's a lot of angst out there about the issue of sexual violence in the military, but here at the VA, we're concerned with the aftermath and providing the treatment veterans may need," Venable said.

"Any MST victim-veteran can be seen here at the VA free of charge, with no other eligibility requirements either, which is different and unique from any other condition," Venable said.

The Clothesline Project started on Cape Cod, Mass., in 1990 to address the issue of violence against women, according to Joy Finkelson, military sexual trauma coordinator at the St. Cloud VA.

Venable said, "This is the first time we have held a Clothesline event, but we've had other events focused on MST, so I think the Clothesline approach is an evolution of an effort, rather than a revolution."

The VA's national screening program asks veterans if they have experienced MST; about one in five women and one in 100 men answered in the affirmative.

"The T-shirts all have a lot of emotion and a lot of pain, and the veterans who created them did a lot of hard work; it took dedication to write down their feelings and thoughts," Finkelson said.

Finkelson said of the veterans in the Clothesline Project, "This was the first time they've been able to open up, and a great deal of them felt this was part of the healing process."

Sexual assault is more likely to result in post-traumatic stress disorder than most other types of trauma, including combat, according the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The decorated T-shirts will be returned to veterans after the exhibit if they desire; remaining T-shirts will be kept for future display.

The words "shame," "pain" and "anger" were featured on many of the T-Shirts that Brett Short looked at somberly in the auditorium at the St. Cloud VA.

"It's sad that people have to experience something like this," Short said of military sexual trauma. "It's unfortunate."

The 51-year-old from Hackensack in Cass County retired from the Coast Guard; he said he was not acquainted with anyone affected by sexual assault.

"I have two children — a 12-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter — and God forbid anybody ever caused them harm because I don't know if I would do the right thing," he said.

What is MST?

Military sexual trauma (or MST) is the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to sexual assault or "repeated, threatening sexual harassment" that occurred while in the military.

MST includes any sexual activity where the person is involved against his or her will — whether pressured with threats or promises, is in a condition where the victim is unable to consent to sex or physically forced to engage in sex.

Other experiences of MST include "unwanted sexual touching or grabbing; threatening, offensive remarks about a person's body or sexual activities; and/or threatening or unwelcome sexual advances."

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs

Effects of MST

• Strong emotions: feeling depressed; having intense, sudden emotional reactions to things; feeling angry or irritable all the time.

• Feelings of numbness: difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness.

• Trouble sleeping: difficulty falling or staying asleep; disturbing nightmares.

• Mental issues: inability to pay attention, concentrate or recall things.

• Relationship problems: feeling isolated or disconnected from others; abusive relationships; trouble with employers or authority figures.

• Physical health problems: sexual difficulties; chronic pain; weight or eating problems; gastrointestinal problems.

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs

VA health services

The St. Cloud VA Health Care System provides free, confidential counseling and treatment to veterans — men and women — for mental and physical health conditions related to military sexual trauma.

Veterans can meet with a clinician of the same or opposite sex, whatever is most comfortable, and they are not required to have reported the incident or provide any documentation the assault occurred to receive treatment.

For more information, call Joy Finkelson at the St. Cloud VA at 252-1670, extension 6398.

Follow Frank Lee on Twitter @fclgannett.

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