USF research responds to military sexual trauma


In its most recently released survey, the Pentagon reported 6 percent of women in the military had experienced some form of sexual violence – a rate 24 times higher than that reported for civilian women. 

As Diane Price-Herndl listened to the news reports last summer of returned military personnel testifying before Congress of the accounts of sexual assault and trauma they endured, she wondered what could be done to combat the issue. 

Then she wondered what was already being done. 

Price-Herndl, the chairperson of the women and gender studies department and chair of USF’s Women’s Status Committee, wondered what research USF was already doing on the topic. 

After putting out several calls to various colleges and departments, the MacDill Air Force Base and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, she found quite a bit. 

The College of Nursing, for example, has been researching how to treat victims of sexual violence and restore their overall sense of wellbeing. Some were studying art-based therapy for survivors. Others, such as women and gender studies masters’ student Veronica Suarez were researching the legal definitions of rape and consent, and how the lack of consistency between military and civilian law leads to many stories falling through the gaps. 

“A lot of people are doing research, but didn’t necessarily know about each other,” Price-Herndl said.

Over the course of a year, Price-Herndl – with the support of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Women’s Status Committee, Research One, the USF chapters of the Theta Chi and Chi Phi fraternities and the USF chapters of the Chi Omega and Alpha Omega Pi sororities- organized a research symposium that will take place today in Room 2708 of the Marshall Student Center and feature presentations from USF researchers, students, counselors and sexual violence responders as well as people in the community working to find solutions.

Brianna Jerman, a first-year Ph.D. student in English who will present her research on narrative medicine and male victims of military sexual trauma, said she hopes the symposium can create a bridge between universities and the military. 

Jerman said her husband was in the military for 10 years and said she has seen first-hand people who have come back from duty carrying the trauma of both war and sexual assault.

“We can help come up with ways to help fix these problems,” she said. “We want to emphasize we’re not attacking the military, but want to create an open dialogue.” 

Universities, she said, which are often positioned to target sexual violence, are in a position to share best practices and strategies, she said. 

One session today will feature presenters from various backgrounds, including the USF Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention and Student Veterans Association, and explore the overlap between sexual assault on college campuses and in the military. 

“This is not an issue of pointing fingers at the military,” Price-Herndl said. “Universities, as a whole, don’t have records that allow us to point fingers. … But at university campuses, there are people working to target this issue. … The military is not primarily set up to be a research institute, though there is research that goes on there. Universities have lots of specialists in treating trauma and addressing sexual assault.”

The symposium will feature eight sessions between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. 

Price-Herndl said she hopes the event will lay groundwork for future collaboration between USF and the military in addressing sexual violence. 

“At the end of the day, this is an American problem, not just military,” she said.