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This is the message that the Zablocki VA Health Care System sends to veterans who have experienced sexual assault or harassment during their military service.

And this is the basis of the events planned to mark the month of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“I hope the message people take away is that they’re not alone,” said Katie Thomas, military sexual trauma coordinator for Zablocki VA Outpatient Clinics in northeastern Wisconsin. “We want to elevate the conversation…and connect people to the services we provide.”

To raise awareness, teal, ribbon-shaped flags will be displayed outside the Milwaukee VA Medical Center as well as outpatient clinics in Union Grove, Appleton, Green Bay and Cleveland. The displays will be in place from April 11 to 29.

The number of flags in each display will represent the number of STD survivors that were served by each facility. More than 2,000 flags will be planted, including more than 1,200 at Milwaukee Hospital.

Additionally, Zablocki will recognize Denim Day on April 27. On this day, dress codes at Zablocki facilities will be relaxed to allow employees to wear denim in support of STD survivors.

Denim Day grew out of a sexual assault case in Italy in which the country’s Supreme Court justices ruled that a woman who was raped by a driving instructor must have given consent because her jeans was too tight.

Help is available

In addition to raising awareness of the STD, the goal of these events is to show people dealing with a past assault or traumatic incident that help is available no matter when the incident occurred.

“We see a lot of mental health patients who have denied it (their trauma) for years,” Thomas said. “But one day, they decide to talk to their supplier about it.”

Todd Witt, STD coordinator at Milwaukee VA Medical Center, said one in 5 women and 1 in 100 men reported having had an STD. The actual numbers are likely higher, Thomas said, because some survivors may not report the incidents, even to their doctors or mental health specialists.

And VA health care providers are required to ask veterans about STDs.

“The question is asked right away on (a veteran’s) first visit, but they may not show up until after they’ve taken good care of their VA care,” Witt said. “I met veterans who, a year later, finally disclosed the STD they experienced in Vietnam.”

Sexual trauma and PTSD

STD is closely associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. While many believe PTSD is primarily experienced by veterans who were in combat, Thomas said sexual trauma is associated with the highest rates of PTSD.

“Studies show that military sexual trauma is associated with greater harm than sexual trauma outside of the military,” she said, noting that feelings of betrayal and shame may be greater because the army reflects an image of cohesion, camaraderie and teamwork.

“There’s this feeling that, ‘These are supposed to be my brothers in arms. My comrades are supposed to protect me,'” she said.

Additionally, recovering from PTSD associated with sexual trauma often takes longer and requires more work than other forms of PTSD. “It’s a very damaging type of trauma,” she said.

VA offers many programs to help STD survivors, including groups designed specifically for them, Witt said.

“We recognize that this is a specific type of trauma,” he said, noting that groups are “another great resource to help them understand that they are not alone.”

“A Pretty Scary Road”

Thomas said awareness campaigns for Sexual Assault Awareness Month can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. But dealing with discomfort is part of the healing process, she said.

“If people are uncomfortable with something, they have to deal with it,” she said. “We really want people to start having this conversation. … It’s a pretty scary road, and that’s another reason we want people to know they’re not alone.

“We try to provide them with the services they need,” Witt said.