by Senior Airman Sean D. Smith
Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
3/3/2015 - MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- A
key component of the military's response to counter sexual assault is
the victim advocate program. Victim advocates are individuals a victim
can talk to in the aftermath of an assault, and a companion through
everything that follows, from medical appointments to, potentially, a
court-martial for the perpetrator.
"The VA's are all volunteers who want to help make a difference in the
lives of others," said Reagan Gagne, Sexual Assault Response
Coordinator. "There is a great mix of rank, personalities, and
backgrounds among the VA's that it forms a cohesiveness to provide the
best service possible."
Victim advocates are a diverse group with a variety of tools to help victims.
"The strongest point of the VA program is the confidentiality that a VA
offers," said Tech. Sgt. Dean Sides, 5th Civil Engineer Squadron NCO in
charge of structures. "A lot of VAs are survivors of sexual assault
Sides is one such survivor who is also a VA. When he was assaulted 19
years ago, there were no victim advocates in the Air Force, and at the
time, the hospital wouldn't even treat his physical injuries or
acknowledge what had happened.
"My discharge paper said I'd been in a car accident," Sides said. "They didn't do anything for me."
While he wasn't able to get help from a victim advocate in the military back then, he stayed in the uniform regardless.
"There was nowhere else I wanted to go," Sides said.
Working as a VA allowed Sides to keep his mind off his own demons, while helping other survivors with theirs.
Sides believes that the most important step that a VA can help a survivor take is to talk about what's happened.
"I can see when I'm working with someone after the report, the change in
people - it's instant," Sides said. "Once you say 'Hey, my name is
whatever, and this is what happened to me,' it's instantly gratifying.
It instantly makes you feel better. Not 100 percent obviously, but every
little bit helps with something like that."
For those who aren't VAs, to be more supportive of survivors, Sides reminds people not to blame victims.
"If someone tells you they're a survivor, first and foremost, believe
them," Sides said. "What were they doing, what were they wearing, how
much were they drinking? Those are always the first questions, but none
of that matters."
Standing up to sexual assault and being supportive of survivors isn't
solely the role of VAs and the SAPR program - it's everyone's
responsibility to be a good wingman.
"If we can prevent one, it's worth it," Sides said. "If you can help
somebody, help somebody. If you can't help them, then help them find
someone who can."