The Clothesline Project: Military Sexual Trauma Vets Break the Silence

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MANCHESTER, NH — The Manchester Veterans Medical Center is doubling as an art gallery, as T-shirts expressing the experience of sufferers of military sexual trauma (MST) are on display at the VAMC’s first-floor Mountain Entrance. The display is presented by the Clothesline Project to raise awareness of MST and undermine the stereotype of those who have experienced MST as “victims.”

Transformed with paint and glitter and love by individuals who have experienced MST, the T-shirts hang from clothespins in groups of threes. The Tees celebrate the strength it takes to survive MST and the courage required to “break the silence” over the effects of sexual abuse and harassment in the military.

Bearing images and messages that come straight from the heart as well as from deep down in the soul, the Tees testify to the ability of the human spirit not just to survive trauma, but to transcend it.

Military Sexual Trauma

The Veterans Administration’s website defines military sexual trauma as any sexual activity imposed on a serving member of the military, against his or her will, through physical or psychological coercion. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are examples of MST, but it is an inclusive term that covers sexual behavior elicited by threats, or solicited in exchange for promises of rewards. MST includes any and all consensual and non-consensual sex that occurred when a service member was intoxicated or sleeping.

Both men and women experience MST, which can severely damage a person’s mental and physical health. The effects of MST aren’t always immediate and can strike a traumatized service member many years after the event. MST can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Women who have been raped, whether or not they’ve been in the military, can wind up with PTSD as severe and disabling as that experienced by combat vets.

Like combat vets afflicted by PTSD, people suffering from MST may be plagued by troubling memories and difficulty sleeping. Nightmares are not uncommon. Many MST sufferers turn to alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms. Those experiencing the continued effects of trauma are prone to physical ailments, as stress overwhelms them. They can find themselves in a vicious cycle where MST negatively affects their physical health, which, in turn, makes the MST worse. Many are clinically depressed.

MST can leave a person feeling vulnerable, due to the perception that the world is an unsafe place. This can cause a person to feel isolated from others, as well as feeling physically and emotionally numb. Problems with emotional regulation, manifesting itself as anger and irritability, further compound the isolation and lack of security felt by MST victims. Their behavior can cause family and friends to back away, and the resulting lack of support makes things worse.

Beauty and Hope

Viewing the installation is overwhelming at first, particularly when, after looking at the Clothesline Project T-Shirts hung on the wall of the Mountain Entrance waiting room, you round the corner and – unexpectedly – enter a whole hallway hung with even more MST Tees. It was a jolt! A kind of blow to the viewer’s own soul.

A viewer will be struck by sadness, their own sadness, as well as anger, their own anger, on experiencing the suffering on display. But there is beauty on display. The MST Tees are folk art.

It’s a terrible beauty. Terrible at first, as you feel all that pain. But as you begin to process your own shock and pain and anger, shock and pain and anger that resonates with the shock and pain and anger seemingly woven into the fabric of the Tees, as you struggle to make sense of MST, and how many vets have been hit by it, you sense the true beauty of the Tees. The true beauty of the human souls behind each Tee, the beauty of those who have had the courage to break the silence and share their stories.

What courage! Courage is the very being of a warrior, from the first time he or she steps up to the line on the floor at the military entrance processing center, raises his or her hand, and takes the oath to defend and protect the United States and the Constitution with his or her own life.

What is on display as the Clothesline Project is the lives of warriors.

The MST vets who made these Tees have been true to themselves as warriors. They are waging a war on terror, a very bitter kind of terror, indeed, as it was inflicted on them by their own comrades and superiors in military service. Comrades and superiors whom they trusted, whom they had to trust, as their lives – those lives they pledged to  their country – depended on it.

Overwhelmingly, the message of the Tees is one of hope.

The MST vets who created this folk art are winning. The MST Tees are not only flags brought home from battle, the Tees are the very symbols of their victory.