Coping With the Unconscionable

Specialized program for military sexual trauma leads with empathy, patience, compassion
Denise Dailey, PsyD

The Road Home Program provides one of the only specialized treatment programs in the country for military sexual trauma, or MST. It has treated 458 clients to date. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are longstanding issues in the U.S. military, often shrouded in a culture that encourages survivors to stay silent — or risk retaliation.

While the U.S. Department of Defense established a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2005, work remains to shift military culture, as evidenced by the demand for the Road Home Program’s services. By talking about MST and creating a safe place for survivors to obtain care, the team hopes more veterans and active-duty service members will feel comfortable coming forward for treatment. If and when they do, the Road Home Program is ready to provide empathetic, patient, compassionate care. A Problem That Spans Eras, Identities and Ranks

While the true prevalence of MST is unknown, care is available at the Road Home

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ screening program reveals that 2% of men and 33% of women veterans have experienced MST. These figures do not account for unreported instances of MST, which are common. Many survivors describe being intimidated, silenced or otherwise marginalized when attempting to report their assault.

“People don’t want to hear about sexual violence,” said Denise Dailey, PsyD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Road Home Program. “It’s a very ugly stain on military culture, but it is a part of it. We see people who’ve been perpetrated against within the last 12 or 24 months. This is not an old issue; it’s still happening.”

Because MST survivors often feel distrust toward military institutions, the Road Home Program is an essential resource outside the VA system. Many clients initially ask for help with conditions such as anxiety, depression, migraines, sleep problems or chronic pain. Through therapy, trauma is revealed as the underlying issue.

Dr. Dailey comes from a long lineage of veterans, some of whom are survivors of MST. Through her work supporting survivors, she has found they are often part of marginalized groups because of their race, gender or sexual orientation.

“Here at the Road Home Program, I’ve really been able to tie all of my training experiences and personal and professional experiences together to make a greater impact,” she said. “There’s space for me not only to address the sexual trauma but also why that person was targeted to begin with.”

Dismantling stigma, building hope

Dr. Dailey was drawn to the Road Home Program’s guiding principle that PTSD is treatable, not terminal. Clinicians help clients learn how to manage their symptoms and reestablish a sense of safety after experiencing trauma.

Dr. Dailey and her colleagues are expanding outreach efforts with active-duty service members to spread the word about the care available at the Road Home Program. She recently organized a three-part webinar series on treatment considerations for MST survivors with PTSD that drew hundreds of clinicians from around the country.

Looking to the future, Dr. Dailey hopes to ensure everyone who needs care can receive it, especially those in marginalized communities.

“There is power in sharing your story and what’s happened to you,” she said. “There is justice in not staying silent. A part of sexual violence is the demonstration of power and control over an individual, and silence falls into that. But speaking up and speaking out dismantles that.”

Reclaiming His Life

MST survivor gains confidence, community following intensive outpatient care

When Darnell Wilson joined the U.S. Navy, he already had a target on his back.

After graduating high school in Muskegon, Michigan, he enrolled in college and was adjusting to his new environment when a recruiter called him on the phone, Darnell recalled. The recruiter claimed that because Darnell signed with him previously, he could lose his college scholarship, have problems getting a job and even face jail time if he didn’t leave for basic training. The recruiter even moved Darnell’s personal belongings from his college dorm to his home back in Muskegon. This was a misrepresentation of the law, as Darnell had not yet signed a contract at a Military Entrance Processing Station.

Unaware of his right to withdraw his commitment, Darnell went to Recruit Training Command at Illinois’ Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The officers and trainees there knew his story and began harassing him, he said.

“I feel I was mistreated from beginning to end,” Darnell said of his military experience. “Even though I decided I didn’t want to go into the military anymore, when I did go, I wanted to be a public servant and do the best I could. When people you look up to — who are supposed to protect you — are mistreating you, you don’t feel seen.”

Following basic training, Darnell was stationed on the USS Denver (LPD-9) in a confined space with primarily men. He was bullied and sexually assaulted on multiple occasions, he said.

“I never wanted to talk about that or tell anyone because as a Black gay male, you deal with a lot of things,” he said. “And when it comes to sexual assault as a male, regardless of if you’re gay or not, you feel like you’re weak. I wanted to be tough and feel like I could handle it.”

The harassment and sense of hopelessness Darnell felt became so overwhelming that he attempted suicide multiple times. This resulted in hospitalization and an honorable discharge for a personality disorder. Darnell said he continues to face challenges receiving support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which contends that his condition is not service-related. This high burden to demonstrate disability and impairment stemming from military service is an issue Dr. Dailey noted is unfortunately common for veterans.

Despite the trauma and injustice Darnell endured, he worked to move on with his life. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and landed an IT job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where he received numerous promotions.

Still, he felt unable to be himself, speak openly about his time in the military or reveal his sexual orientation to coworkers for fear they would ostracize him. He had trouble being intimate with his partners, avoided activities involving boats or water for the memories they would surface, and struggled with sleeping.

“I masked a lot of things that happened because I didn’t want anybody to know their son, nephew or partner has a personality disorder,” he said. “I was afraid of how I’d be looked at. I thought for years I would get kicked out of my job working for the government.”

These fears resulted in Darnell pushing himself to his limits at his job. When he did have free time, he feared being alone and often went out to drink on weekends. After he opened up to his best friend about what he was experiencing, Darnell followed her advice to seek help. He began seeing a counselor who connected him to the Road Home Program, where he met Dr. Dailey.

Darnell began seeing Dr. Dailey weekly in April 2022 and attended the two-week IOP for MST. He made exceptional progress managing his symptoms, Dr. Dailey said.

“Denise was different,” Darnell said. “She allowed me to truly open up in ways I didn’t think were possible, be comfortable with telling my story and feel like I didn’t cause the things that happened to me.”

Today, Darnell participates in LGBTQ events at work and a men’s Bible study group. He led IT operations at the EPA’s response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and recently accepted a new job at a different government agency. He also strengthened his relationships with family members and opened up to them about his past.

“I may deal with this for the rest of my life, but Denise provided me with the tools to help me cope with anxiety, depression and PTSD,” Darnell said. “Good things started happening after I came to terms that I wasn’t the cause of what happened to me in the military.”

To learn more about supporting the Road Home Program’s work to provide mental health care at no cost to veterans, active-duty service members and families, please contact Michelle Boardman, senior director of development, at or (312) 942-6884. You may also make a gift online to fuel services and innovation at the Road Home Program.

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