Military News

Friday, May 02, 2014

Taking a progressive stand against sexual assault

by Airman 1st Class Daniel Blackwell
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

5/2/2014 - SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- In response to what has been called a "crisis within the ranks" by leaders within the Department of Defense, a variety of new sexual assault programs and initiatives have been sought out and employed in recent months and years.

The improvements are centered on sexual assault prevention as well as creating an environment where victims of sexual assault have even more resources at their disposal.

Included in the programs and initiatives is the Military Criminal Investigation Organizations (MCIO) fulfilling new roles in investigative processes, the Special Victims' Counsel Program, the DOD Safe Helpline, expedited transfers and the Every Airman Counts blog.

In recent years, in an effort to create a more responsive and objective system to aid victims of sexual assault, the DOD has amended UCMJ articles 120 and 125, the two most pertinent articles regarding matters of sexual assault and harassment.

The amendments redefine what constitutes sexual harassment, assault, and other prosecutable offenses of a sexual nature, how these offenses are dealt with and who investigates their allegation. Whereas security forces, and other service equivalent entities, used to oversee such investigations; the task now falls to MCIOs.

There are three organizations that comprise the MCIO. The Criminal Investigative Division, which investigates major crimes within the U.S. Army; the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which investigates major crimes within the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps; and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, which does the same. Each organization within the MCIO is charged with conducting detailed, contained, structured and objective investigations to obtain the truth about an event, situation or individual.

"Sexual Assault is a serious crime that is impacting our military," explained Gregory Gow, Seymour Johnson AFB OSI special agent in charge. "Having the MCIOs take charge of these investigations ensures the best investigative organization, within each respective service, is paying attention to this crime.

"We have a lot of investigative tools and abilities at our disposal to determine whether or not an act did or didn't happen," he continued. "We investigate any crime with the same vigor regardless of severity."

Because MCIOs are independent investigative agencies that do not fall under their respective branch's direct chain of command, they have been deemed the most impartial investigative entities by government leaders.

"Air Force and DOD leadership felt these issues needed to be in the hands of independent investigators to ensure objectivity," Gow said. "This gives victims an outlet to report a crime and know something will be done with the information.

"Ultimately, it's about the safety and security of our Airmen through investigative means," Gow explained. "By doing this, we support victims with every resource we have at our disposal."

Aside from DOD-wide investigatory changes, the Air Force took initiative in solving a separate issue. Officials realized that often, when a victim found the courage to report their assault and prosecute their assailant, they didn't have anyone appointed to help or defend them in legal matters. In response Air Force leadership enacted the Special Victims' Counsel Jan. 28, 2013.

The program affords sexual assault victims the right, should they so choose, to have a specially trained Air Force lawyer guide, counsel and defend victims throughout the legal proceedings.

"We've received rave reviews about this program," said Bernadine Roy, sexual assault victim assistant. "It really has made a difference."

In August of 2013, after seeing the success the Air Force had with this program, the Secretary of Defense directed all other branches to follow suit and implement a SVC program.

According to Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps records, 458 individuals requested SVC representation and 92 percent said they were "extremely satisfied" with the help and support they received. Overall, the program currently has a 100 percent approval rating by victims.

"It's often a daunting task for victims to understand the legal process in a sexual assault case," explained Nancy Pike, 4th Fighter Wing sexual assault response coordinator. "By having their own special victims' counselor, the victim has representation in the process. Victims feel more comfortable that way."

Quote from SVC on representing victims: "After a lengthy investigation process and trial, [my client's husband] approached me. He told me how much having me there meant to his wife; that she felt she had a voice in the system and the court listened to her; that she had someone to call with questions; that someone was in her corner. He thanked me, then took a step back and saluted me, not because customs and courtesies required it, but as a sign of gratitude. It was an incredibly moving moment and it was then that I realized this program isn't about outcomes, it is about people. Victims' rights are not about ensuring a conviction; they are about promoting respect, dignity and meaningful participation in the justice system."

After legal proceedings are finished, regardless of the verdict, victims face the arduous task of mental, spiritual and emotional healing from their assault. As this process could be prolonged or hindered altogether if the victim works with or around their assailant, the Air Force has implemented expedited transfers. Expedited transfers give victims an option to quickly relocate by means of a permanent change of station or permanent change of assignment to another base or unit away from their assailant to, according to Pike, better cope with and heal from the trauma of their assault.

"Victims often want to leave the place where the assault occurred," Pike explained. "This process allows them to move in a timely manner."

Aside from programs and new directives set in place to help victims after an assault has occurred, preventing the assault before it happens would be ideal. According to Roy, the best preventative measure is education.

"Educating people is one of our biggest concerns," Roy explained. "By doing this, we hope to reach people who may not know about or may be misinformed about facts regarding sexual assault and its ramifications. Our ultimate goal is to create a better environment and culture in the Air Force."

In response to the call for education and additional resources, the DOD and all the branches of service continue to look for new and effective ways to reach and educate military members about sexual assault.

One tool currently in use is the DOD Safe Helpline. Established in 2011, the Safe Helpline provides an online peer-to-peer support community within the DOD where sexual assault victims can connect with one another on a moderated support system. People can connect with the Safe Helpline 24/7 by calling 877-995-5247.

Another outlet for victims is the Every Airman Counts blog. The blog was initiated by Gen. Larry Spencer, Air Force vice chief of staff, to offer Airman a place to provide feedback directly to leadership.

"We can't fix this issue sitting in the Pentagon," Spencer said. "We need each and every one of you to get engaged in addressing this issue ... this crime, and it is a crime.
"We need to know exactly where you feel the issues are so we can address them with laser focus," he continued. "I need every one of you to help us find ways to ensure dignity and respect are prevailing qualities in our daily relationships."

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program is the Air Forces flagship in the battle against sexual assault. The program offers a myriad of tools to educate and support Airmen and DOD civilians.

The SAPR website contains educational videos discussing sexual assault from various perspectives throughout the ranks. It also contains commentaries and stories written by Air Force members, answers to 'frequently asked questions,' safety and risk reduction methods to avoid being victimized, as well as links to many more DOD funded or approved websites containing additional educational material and information.

Leadership within the government and military are continuing to look for new ways to address and prevent the sexual assault crisis.

"Our leaders are addressing this problem head-on, and we will not relent in this fight," Pike said. "As more Airmen step up and prevent sexual assault, the better the Air Force becomes."

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