SARC, VAs help sexual assault survivors stand tall

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website, one out of every six American women and one out of every 33 men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in his or her lifetime. Sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates work professionally and diligently to ensure the rights and needs of victims are met.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Clayton Lenhardt/Released)

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website, one out of every six American women and one out of every 33 men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in his or her lifetime. Sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates work professionally and diligently to ensure the rights and needs of victims are met.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Clayton Lenhardt/Released)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- It happens everywhere - cities and towns both large and small. Service member or civilian, it can affect either. It occurs in clubs, alleyways, homes, theaters and elsewhere. The act is sexual assault, and it does not discriminate.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website, one out of every six American women and one out of every 33 men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in his or her lifetime. The site also states, on average that every two minutes, a person in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.

Fortunately, the U.S. Air Force has a program in place to aid in reducing the number of sexual assaults at each base.

At Incirlik, Maj. Mica Ashmore, 39th Air Base Wing sexual assault response coordinator, and seven victim advocates work professionally and diligently to ensure the rights and needs of victims, or survivors, are met, here and at geographically-separated units.

"Basically, the SARC is the primary coordinator and facilitator to assist victims of sexual assault. For me, I was given the opportunity to volunteer for the (two-year) position, and I took it. I've been in the Air Force for a long time. We talk about helping fellow Airmen in common Air Force discourse. This provided me the chance to really care for and assist Airmen," said the SARC. "Victim care is absolutely the top priority. How we support that priority is by ensuring immediate and long-term care for the victim. We also help by assigning a victim advocate."

Victim advocates work alongside the SARC to stand side by side with a sexual assault victim. A 40-hour training course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., prepares the VA. The course includes briefings from health agencies; lessons on how to deal with the physical and mental effects of a significant traumatic event; and ways to assist a victim in moving forward with their lives.

Sexual assault response coordinators also receive an initial 40 hours of training at Maxwell AFB as a foundation. Additionally, there are two annual training sessions - one in the United States and one within U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

"Sexual assaults are occurring on this base," said Ashmore. "The good thing is they are being reported, and we do have the facilities and the professionals to help these victims. I am also confident and proud of the victim advocates to be able to provide that support."

One victim advocate, Tech. Sgt. Priscilla Anderson, also the SARC administrator and an alternate SARC, has worked within the sexual assault prevention and response program for more than five years and at multiple bases. At Incirlik, she said, the small-base mentality is encouraging because there are so many people lined up to help.

However, that small-base mentality also presents its challenges.

"Here, as far as reporting sexual assault, it's challenging because we are such a small base. And because of that, people may be hesitant to report instances of sexual assault. However, I have absolute confidence in the support agencies here - the chapel, medical group and victim advocates - for a confidential restricted report," Ashmore said.

When someone reports a sexual assault, it's important to realize there are two types of reports - restricted and unrestricted. Restricted reporting maintains confidentiality of the crime with the SARC, victim advocate and healthcare personnel. Only service members have the option to file a restricted report. An unrestricted report is for sexual assault victims who desire medical treatment, referral services and an official investigation. These reports can be made to the SARC, chain of command, law enforcement or healthcare personnel.

Regardless, the SARC's goal is "to ensure immediate medical and safety needs are met. First, safety to make sure they are out of a dangerous situation. Once they're in a safe place, we'll address their immediate medical concerns. After that, we'll address issues such as counseling or visits to a chaplain," said Ashmore. "However, every case is not a cookie-cutter situation. Every case is different. Every person has different stress thresholds. A lot of times, we play it by ear to ensure all of a victim's needs are met."

The likeness among all reported cases is the bravery of the victim to make the report at all.

"I have been so inspired by the courage and strength victims have shown - one by reporting the sexual assault, and two by showing resiliency to be open to and accept help, to stand up, move forward and go on with their lives. It's absolutely inspiring," said the SARC. "You think you've had a bad day, but this really puts life in perspective."

To avoid becoming a victim in the first place, Ashmore recommends having "a good awareness of your surroundings and who you're with. I don't want to sound cliché, but having a plan and having a good Wingman are important."

Bystanders are also important when it comes to preventing sexual assault, thus the recently implemented and required bystander intervention training conducted by the SARC office.

"The bystander intervention training is provided to mobilize Airmen to identify behaviors that could lead to sexual assault and safely intervene to prevent something from happening," Ashmore said. "Studies show that there are behaviors that gradually lead up to a sexual assault. The bystander intervention training focuses on finding those behaviors and taking action earlier in a preventative manor."

Bystander intervention training, or BIT, replaced the annual sexual assault training. The Air Force goal is to have everyone trained by June 2012, "but of course at Incirlik we're trying to get it done before June," remarked Anderson, also a BIT instructor.

As one so involved in the Air Force's SAPR program, from BIT to victim advocacy to SARC administrative duties, Anderson said being a volunteer with the program has taught her "everything. You cannot judge a person. You cannot make your own opinions because you don't have the full story. You cannot try to save everybody in your own way; you have to allow them to save themselves. In the same way, you can guide them back to where they need to be or a step ahead of where they were before the traumatic event happened."

The victim advocate's role is exactly that, to help a survivor of sexual assault focus on recovering from a traumatic event and regaining his or her power. Ashmore noted the professionalism and excellence with which Incirlik's victim advocated conduct themselves in the face of sexual assault cases.

The benefit of the program, however, is not just one-sided. Those working in the SARC office as volunteers also get something out of it.

What makes it all worth it is "the end result - when you see that person and see that they're getting back into the scheme of things," said Anderson. "I get out of it a sense of benevolence. Anytime I can do something to help someone smile, whether it's to make a silly comment or to help them stand back on their two feet, it does my heart good."

The SARC can be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week at DSN 676-SARC or via the command post at DSN 676-9920. If the call is connected through the command post, the SARC will ensure the call is continued on a line that is not monitored to maintain the option for confidentiality.