Thirteen members of the U.S. military were killed in combat in 2018. That same year a record 325 active military members died by suicide.
For those who do their duty, serve our nation and return home, suicide proves an even deadlier foe, killing an average of 20 veterans a day. And they aren't all war-weary veterans coping with the horrors of combat.
"Military sexual trauma is just as traumatic as a bullet wound to the heart, so to speak," says counselor Mary Roberson, a Navy veteran who holds a doctorate of education in counseling psychology and serves as social services supervisor for the Lake County Veterans and Family Services Foundation in Grayslake. The recent suicide rate among women in the military has increased at twice the pace of male service members, according to research by the RAND Corp.
"A lot of female veterans come in with post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual trauma," says Roberson, who has worked with veterans throughout her career, is an instructor at the College of Lake County and National Louis University, and is a project director and consultant with Nicasa, a nonprofit behavioral health services organization with facilities in Round Lake, North Chicago, Waukegan, Buffalo Grove, Highland Park, Mundelein and Zion.
Military sexual trauma can be assault or harassment. Roberson made that discovery shortly after she joined the Navy on Sept. 3, 1973, and was stationed in California during the end of the Vietnam War. "As a young African-American woman in a predominantly white, male Navy, there was harassment," she says, noting she and other women didn't report it.
"You don't say anything, especially if you are a military woman on track for promotion," says Roberson, who finished her Navy service in 1976. As a civilian, her inability to cope with the trauma of her military service led to a new struggle with alcohol and drugs. When she found help, she also found a career.
"I fell in love with that counseling aspect. I have a helping nature," says Roberson, who has 27 years in recovery. She studied at the College of Lake County and got her undergraduate and master's degrees at National Louis University, which has campuses in Chicago, Wheeling, Lisle, Elgin and Skokie. She got her doctorate at Argosy University in Schaumburg.
National data shows that, among veterans who seek health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, about one in four women and one in 100 men acknowledge they experienced military sexual trauma.
"Most women try to suppress the emotional stress of trauma," she says. Many veterans who experience military sexual trauma stay "down range," keeping their stories and feelings bottled up inside, Roberson says, adding that some turn to alcohol, pain medications or street drugs.
She works with women accused of crimes in the Lake County Veterans Treatment and Assistance Court. "When we do a deep dive, we find out these women have been sexually abused," Roberson says.
Help is available, says Roberson, who recounts many stories of veterans, including her, getting their lives back on track.
"We're bringing awareness to veteran suicides," Roberson says of Saturday's Ruck March across Lake County, the third annual march sponsored by the Lake County Veterans and Family Services Foundation. For more information, visit lakevetsfound.org.
Coping with military sexual trauma is an experience, not a mental health condition, and veterans can learn more about services by visiting mentalhealth.va.gov, calling the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 or chatting online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
While professional help is available, the rest of us can help.
"Be a listening ear. Don't be judgmental," Roberson says. "Just be compassionate and empathetic."