Tampa Bay nonprofit on mission to help veterans heal from trauma of sexual assault

From April 5th to 7th, veterans from all over the nation and their families will gather at the University of South Florida’s USF’s CW Bill Young Hall. Some will be there to begin a long journey of healing. Some will be there to learn a new side of their family members. But all will be there to hear about the experience of being a military sexual assault survivor. 

The Military Sexual Trauma Summit (MST) is a yearly conference organized by the Tampa nonprofit Veterans Counseling Veterans organization (VCV). For three years, the summit has connected and empowered those in need, offering valuable education and insight on military sexual trauma. 

The VCV and its annual conference summit are the brainchild of U.S. Army veteran Ellsworth (Tony) Williams. After serving 24 years in the army, Williams wanted to continue to help his fellow service members. He decided that there was a desperate need for awareness and help among military sexual assault survivors. He began the MST summit three years ago to provide that much-needed support. 

Veterans Counseling Veterans founder Ellsworth "Tony" Williams.“A big issue I see is that veterans don’t know what the resources are,” Williams says. I decided that I need to start having conferences to help bring them up,” says Williams.“They’re thirsty for something. Something that addresses that pain, that anger, that hurt and that betrayal.”

The ultimate goal of the VCV is to lower the staggeringly high veteran suicide rate. Florida has the largest population of veterans in the country and the suicide rate among the state's veterans is more than two-and-half times the rate for the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Working for solutions to the epistemic of veteran suiciide, VCV bridges the gap between veterans and mental health support by providing free resources, like counseling, programs, education and summits like the MST. 

Helping the whole family heal

As a child of a veteran himself, Williams grew up seeing the effects that unresolved veteran issues had on a family. That’s why, at the summit, he encourages veterans’ family members to join. 

“You think, if I can get out, I can run from it,” Williams says. “But you can’t really run from something like that. You don’t realize that your actions are seeping into your family, your relationships… it snowballs. It’s a classic military attitude to say ‘I can take it.’ But when they see their son and daughter and what they go through, see that life has been destroyed because of what they’ve been through… It's heartbreaking.”

This year’s Veterans Counseling Veterans summit focuses on solutions with the family unit in mind, highlighting the importance of healing the entire family relationship. In addition to veterans and their families, mental health providers, advocates and anyone who has a veteran in their life they support are encouraged to attend. The conference will host several panels and guest speakers talking about a wide range of subjects, from coping mechanisms to generational trauma. 

A veteran uses her trauma to help others

Speakers range from local veterans to guests from all over the country. Some are new to the conference. Others, like Christy Hinnant, return this year after inspirational experiences at prior conferences.

Hinnant was a sergeant in the US Army, serving for eight years. During that time, she was raped. For years, she did not tell her family or friends about the sexual assault. Alone, she dealt with the impact of the sexual assault.

“I felt like I was going crazy,” Hinnant says, “I knew there was something wrong. The nightmares, the flashbacks started to happen. I never told my family or my friends for years because of the shame and the guilt”.

Three years later, she was diagnosed with severe PTSD. Coming to terms with her assault was a long process for Hinnant. She reverted to destructive coping mechanisms and escapism. 

When Hinnait started finding the light and applying healthier ways to deal with her trauma, her life changed for the better. She then decided to use her experience to serve others. 

In 2019, Hinnant began V.O.I.C.E.S. Against Sexual Assault, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those who suffer from sexual trauma. Her mission led her to the 2023 MST Summit, where she became inspired by its message. She now returns this year as a panelist. 

“There's power in your story," says Hinnant. "A lot of times, as victims, we are hesitant to share our story because of the guilt, the shame and the judgment of others but when you find that courage inside of you to start sharing that story, it truly has the impact to touch someone else's life and help them help seek out help as well.”

By sharing her story and offering support, she aims to empower fellow military sexual trauma survivors to seek healing and solidarity. But Hinnait is just one of many who have returned to the summit, feeling moved by its mission -Williams highlights that some of the attendees will be returning members whose lives were truly impacted by the last conferences:

“The biggest comments I got were ‘You saved my life. I didn’t know there were people like me out there, and now I can connect to them and build that support,” says Williams. 

The summit will take place over the course of three days -the first day being virtual. The rest of the days will be centered around USF’s CW Bill Young Hall and includes a tour of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay on Saturday. To ensure the emotional comfort of the attendees, the summit will offer safe rooms to provide a safe place for survivors to de-escalate and feel supported. 

Both Williams and Hinnant are optimistic about the impact of the MST summit. Over the past years, breaking the stigma of silence around military sexual assault has initiated the journey healing for countless veterans.

“Being able to speak about it supports others, letting them know that whatever they went through they are not alone and there’s resources out there to support them on their journey,” says Hinnant. 

For more information, go to Veterans Counseling Veterans
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Read more articles by Tashie Tierney.

Tashie Tierney has always been an avid storyteller with a dedication of sharing the inspiring humans within this world. Tashie's innate curiosity and affinity of talking to strangers might have stressed out her parents during her childhood, but it ultimately led her down the path of journalism. She graduated the University of South Florida in 2023 with a degree in International Relations and the hopes that it would take her all across the world. When she's not busy writing the latest story, she's probably either traveling, painting, making music, creating videos, or playing with her bunny. Learn more about Tashie at her travel blog or follow her on Instagram @tashies.travels