An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Emil Caron and David Galloway discuss the impact of military sexual trauma and ways to support male Veterans seeking and in recovery with host Steven Samra.
March 21, 2022
Steven Samra, Host (00:05): Hi, everyone. Welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host today, Steven Samra. I’m a senior associate with C4 Innovations and today’s topic, it’s going to focus on military sexual trauma or MST and it’s impact on male veteran survivors.
Steven (00:22): Although statistics tell us that one in three women are victims of military sexual trauma, men too have been the victims of MST and the Veteran’s Administration [VA] reports that about one in 100 males have experienced some form of MST. Now, when compared to the rate of MST for women, some may think this isn’t that big of a deal, but when you factor in the tens of thousands of individuals in our armed forces, and then you understand that the VA sees about 30% of all the veterans in this country, it rapidly becomes a very big deal. Then when you factor in the shame and stigma male veterans experience over this often taboo topic, it’s easy to understand how challenging this situation is.
Steven (01:12): Joining us today is David Galloway, a Marine Corps, Iraq war veteran, who works within state government to connect veterans with resources, services, and benefits, and David troubleshoots challenges and barriers for veterans as well. Hello, David, and welcome.
David Galloway, Guest (01:29): Thank you, Steven. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Steven (01:32): David is joined by Emil Caron. Emil is a Gulf War Navy veteran, who is today working as a certified recovery peer specialist at Epic Behavioral Healthcare in the Flagler County Jail in Bunnell, Florida. Emil, welcome.
Emil Caron, Guest (01:47): Great to be here, Steve. Thank you.
Steven (01:49): Emil and David, thank you for joining me today. I think more importantly, thank you both for your service gentlemen. Emil, can you share just a bit of your story and let us know some of the challenges you experienced as you attempted to find some assistance and support?
Emil (02:07): Absolutely. I started my journey… Well started as a child, actually with some trauma as a child. I always wanted to be a Veteran or I always wanted to be like my dad, be in the Navy, so yeah, 17 years old, I was enlisted the early enlistment program where my parents signed to have me leave before my 18th birthday. I encountered sexual assault when I was in bootcamp and really changed the face of how I thought my whole Navy experience was going to go.
Emil (02:41): I immediately turned to substances, drinking and smoking marijuana and then after that, I later turned to opioids, prescription opioids, and then heroin and other street drugs later down the line. As far as addressing some of the barriers, as you mentioned, when it came to seeking help, for one as the stigma and taboo of sexual trauma for males, especially around being in the military at that time, I for one, I never even knew that or never even really wanted to address the trauma.
Emil (03:14): I really wanted to just make it go away. That was what I did, was fill that void with substances. I didn’t really know that there was any care available for me, because I was other than honorably discharged from the service, because of my substance use disorder. I really had no idea that there was any type of availability for care or treatment for the trauma that I experienced.
Emil (03:37): It wasn’t until I finally, at 41 years old, I did start to get some recovery and through a treatment program and through law enforcement intervention. I decided that I wanted to look into upgrading my discharge through the discharge upgrade process, which I had no idea what was really involved with that, but I went and spoke to a Veteran Service Officer, and I really went there just to get my DD214, but I saw on a corkboard behind him, there was a little sign that said MST, Military Sexual Trauma.
Emil (04:14): I really didn’t know at that time that I thought I was the only person that had experienced this. My whole life, I had carried this shame and never spoken to anyone about it, but I knew at that point, I didn’t actually bring it up then, I got my DD214, and I left, and I put a lot of thought to it. I knew if I didn’t get some help for the trauma, that I would never be able to stay clean, or stay in recovery, because the using substances was a symptom of that bigger problem.
Emil (04:45): I went back after doing a little research on finding out what MST was. I spoke to the VSO, the Veteran Service Officer. I had asked him if there was any way that I could get treatment for this, even though I was other than honorably discharged.
Emil (05:01): He said there was something called the Compassion Act, which is, I think an act of Congress that allowed people who suffered from military sexual trauma or PTSD in general, I think, and were other than honorably discharged to be able to get services through the VA with no cost to them. Yeah, I started that process and I remember I met… The first doctor I met as I was doing the intake process, I was very scared to talk about this, I’d never mentioned it to anyone before, and she said to me, “What have you got to lose?” At that point, I was homeless on the streets, and I was broken. I knew that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. That’s my story in a nutshell.
Steven (05:43): Emil, thank you for your honesty and your courage. That’s a very powerful story. I wonder, David, do you have anything to add regarding Emil’s story here?
David (05:55): Unfortunately, Emil’s story is one I’ve heard way too often. Veterans feeling like they’re the only ones or Veterans feeling like they’re alone and not sure where to go, not sure if they’re eligible for programs, not sure if they can even call themselves a Veteran or if the honor that goes along with that. A lot of Veterans end up, myself included, doing this same thing Emil did and turned into substances and filling that void our own way, because we think we’re the only ones and that nobody else will really understand. We don’t want the looks that some people give us when they see that.
David (06:33): Unfortunately, too many veterans go down that route, but there’s a lot of things Emil did right. He went to the VA. I hope all the providers out there realize the VA is a resource. It’s not the answer to all Veterans’ problems, it’s just a resource for Veterans, but like most resources the Veterans have to work for them. They have to go, they have to apply. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, and Emil will probably touch on that a little bit later, the process and how a lot of Veterans get lost in the process, and they need their counselors. They need their community providers to be along their side and be on their team to help them get through that process.
Steven (07:07): Emil, I’m going to turn to you again, can you talk a little bit about the access to services and what that looked like for you, and then how you actually came to obtain the services that you have today?
Emil (07:21): Sure. When I was actively using it and on the streets and stuff, the only access to services that I knew about was I had contact with a few Salvation Army people who were counting the homeless people on the streets when they do that yearly and that was actually probably one of the first contacts I had with someone who tried to get me engaged in VA services. He counted homeless people, but he also counted homeless Veterans, and he told me that there was resources, even though I was other than honorably discharged. He tried to get me in housing at that time. But due to the nature of my addiction and stuff, I wasn’t quite ready for services. He lost me to the system.
Emil (08:06): But as far as when I did get connected, finally my VA providers have been amazing. I respect and appreciate the job they do. Through that act that I mentioned earlier, I’ve been able to get VA services for the past two years. During that time, I’ve used the Veterans Discharge Upgrade Consortium, which is a pro bono service for Veterans who’ve had other than honorable discharges, to work on getting my discharge upgraded from other than honorable to honorable under general conditions. As David mentioned, this is a process, like anything in the military, that takes quite a long time.
Emil (08:43): My father used to say about the military, “Hurry up and wait.” Everything involved is hurry up and stand in line and wait for whatever you’re going to do. I think, I don’t know if it’s designed that way to turn off people on purpose, I would hate to say it if it was like that, but in a lot of ways, it feels like that they’ve been waiting for me to go back out again and that ability for them to lose me or not, like what happened to me the first time I tried to seek services.
Emil (09:14): I have some great providers, like David said, who have stood by me and really helped walk me through the journey. I wouldn’t be here today without them. Like I said, the Veterans Discharge Consortium and all these volunteers who contribute their time and energy to help people like me, it’s just… But accessing those services in the beginning was just, I had no idea what it took to get connected to those services.
Steven (09:41): David, anything to add, particularly around the challenge that Emil had in those initial attempts at accessing services? I would add, is there a community, a civilian organization responsibility, or potential here to support what Emil was trying to do?
David (10:05): Absolutely. Like Emil was talking about with the character discharge upgrades. It’s not just victims of MST, but a lot of times we see it linked to substance use disorder for those other than honorable discharges. We also have to mention dishonorable and bad conduct discharges. Those are other ones that might disqualify you from some VA resources, from some of them, but not all of them.
David (10:28): There’s a lot of if, ands, or buts when you’re working with the VA and what programs you’re eligible for. The key is getting those organizations the Veterans Affairs for whatever state you’re living in, has benefits officers. Talk to those benefits officers and find out what’s available to you.
David (10:45): When we talk about Vietnam era Veterans, unfortunately a lot of those Veterans returned with other than honorable discharges, because of substance use that they developed while in country and Vietnam. When we’re now 50 years later, now that we’re coming to terms with how we should have treated the Vietnam Veterans, when they returned 50 years ago, we’re getting them the resources they deserve, and they’re trying to overturn a lot of those discharges. But again, it’s quite a long process to get it done, and the Veteran has to be prepared for that process.
Steven (11:16): David, thank you for that response, really that excellent mention of potential resources for folks. That’s fantastic. Thank you. Emil, it’s really important that we hear from you what you think you most wish practitioners would’ve known about, would’ve understood or would be able to do to support victims of military sexual trauma, particularly when they first disclose.
Emil (11:48): Having the support of your provider is absolutely imperative, especially as it pertains to going through the discharge upgrade process. Because then I know this, because I’ve had one provider who was a mental health counselor and then I have my VA mental health provider who is like my mental health medications, so on. I have one of those was strictly on board with me, willing to support me, write me letters, and she really worked closely with me and understood exactly what I was going through and what I needed to try and overcome some of those challenges.
Emil (12:23): However, the other provider, when I asked her for a letter after being seen by her for over a year, I asked her for if she would write a letter in support of my charge upgrade. She responded to me with, “How long have you been off substances again?” I was just so upset by that to say the least that it was very discouraging, because I felt like she had, she didn’t know me. She didn’t really want to support me or I felt like it was something else putting her on the spot about, which is, when you’re dealing with something like this, that’s not how you want to be treated.
Emil (13:00): A lot of the way I have dealt with the trauma is how I see other people deal with it. Especially as it pertains to the VA and the services I get. I’ve been okay with it, because they made me feel okay with it. When something like that happens, it takes so much energy to get back what you lose there. I mean the stigma and the shame, just for me to speak about this, it took me better part of my life.
Emil (13:28): I share this a lot when I pass Veterans parking spaces and things like that, I don’t feel qualified to even park there, because it’s not that I wanted to get the benefits or any of those things that sometimes people think when I wanted to get my discharge upgraded, it was that I was dealing with the shame and stigma of being sexually assaulted and that lack of honor.
Emil (13:54): I’m a person who believes in honor, and I stand by my word and all those principles that the military represents, I sort of embodied those. I was sort of robbed at that when this event happened. Yeah, if I had anything to say, it’s just to be empathetic and be careful with your words, because they make a big impact.
David (14:21): If I could add on to that too, what Emil was talking about, that honor and the stigma associated with having to come out and admit those things that have happened, it really takes a lot of power for a Veteran to do that, because when you think of a Veteran, you think of the brotherhood, the comradery that you should be able to share with your brothers and sisters.
David (14:43): When you’re talking about MST, it really kind of puts a huge nail in that, the thing that being a Veteran is supposed to be the staple of, brotherhood and camaraderie. When you are talking with a Veteran, your response might be to go to the VA, but a lot of Veterans might not feel comfortable being and telling their story around other Veterans, because we still have that camaraderie or it’s such a macho brotherhood, like it’s hard to say these things sometimes, especially if it’s been a long time, and you put a lot of work into putting that behind you. Sometimes it’s hard to bring that back to the surface.
David (15:22): I applaud Emil for being able to come forward. I think the more people, especially the more Veterans that come forward with the issues that they’re having, the more programs the VA can put forward, the more programs the community can put forward for those Veterans that might not feel comfortable going to the VA.
David (15:40): Like you said, at the beginning of the program, only 30% of eligible Veterans actually go to the VA. They’re coming to your doors, the providers’ doors looking for help. If I could say one thing to providers, it would be to ask the question, “Have you served in the military?” Not, “Are you a Veteran?” Because like Emil was talking about with the parking spots, my dad was a 16 year Army Ranger, which is pretty good compared to Marines I guess, but he was 16 years, and when they asked at a baseball game for the Veterans to stand, he doesn’t stand next to me, because he’s not a combat Veteran, and I am. There’s a lot of stigma, there’s a lot of stuff behind the word Veteran. Asking, “Have you served in the military,” is an easier yes or no question.
David (16:25): Then follow that up. It’s like suicidology. If you ask the question, “Are you feeling suicidal?” You’re not going to put it in their head. You’re not going to ruin the conversation. Ask the same question about military sexual trauma, not just to the female Veterans walking through your door, but to every Veteran walking through your door.
Steven (16:41): Emil and David, good grief, thank you both gentlemen. It takes a lot of courage to come on here today and have this conversation, and I applaud you both. I thank you both. I have one last question. What keeps you going?
Emil (16:58): Sometimes I often find myself getting discouraged. You know what I mean? This does take a lot of resilience to put these things on the table and going through, especially the discharge upgrade process, has been… I’ve had to really literally relive all these things and put them down in a chronological order and review them several times, which I never really wanted to do.
Emil (17:24): But you know, as a peer and a person working in recovery services and direct services and dealing with Veterans who, because I don’t work for the VA, I see a lot of these people that David was just talking about, the Veterans that come through that have other than honorable discharges, and they don’t get services through the VA, because they don’t think they’re eligible.
Emil (17:46): What keeps me going is trying to pave the way for the people behind me. Make more services available or just increase access to services for people like me, because I’m just one voice in a million that’s decided to be heard, but there’s so many more people out there that need help that don’t know it’s available and there are just suffering and silence. That’s what keeps me going, is being of service to other people and that’s been my biggest motivating factor, since I got into recovery.
Steven (18:19): Emil, thank you. David, as a combat Vet, you have a different experience I think, than Emil has had. Can you talk about what keeps you going?
David (18:29): Even though my story’s different, I’ve learned in the last 15 years of working with Veterans that even though all of our stories are different, there’s so many similarities. As he goes through his story, he has his reasons why he needed to go to the VA, I had my reasons, I had my hiccups. I had my stumbles. I’ve been working with Veterans for 15 years. I fail trying to do my own stuff with the VA 10 times in that time. I can tell other people, but my own stuff sometimes is harder to work on.
David (18:58): Just like Emil said, though, the thing that pushes me forward is working with other Veterans. Even though Emil had a hard time in the military, you can still see the Veteran, you can still see the Veteran in him and in the way he wants to give back to the Veterans he serves with. I think that’s usually my first stop for getting Veterans connected, is getting them connected with other Veterans, because they’ll soon realize that even though their story’s different, there’s so many similarities.
David (19:24): Whether it’s Vietnam, Iraq, combat or non-combat, PTSD, MST, it all results from trauma and how we deal with that trauma from here on out. So, get connected with other Veterans. Talking to other Veterans on a daily basis, hoping my story helps them is what keeps me going.
Steven (19:42): Gentlemen. I want to thank you both for joining us today.
Emil (19:46): Thanks Steven. Pleasure to be here.
David (19:48): Thank you, Steven. It’s been an honor.
Steven (19:50): To our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer (19:55): Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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