Although Sexual Assault Awareness Month is recognized in April, it is important to view each month and day as a time for everyone to be aware of the impact of sexual assault on the community at large. Since 2001, Sexual Assault Awareness Month has been recognized as a time to help empower all who have been impacted by sexual assault. Working with survivors of sexual assault as a mental health professional and as a victim advocate, is not something that comes easy to anyone. It is a calling that requires compassion, sensitivity, knowledge, and a willingness to serve others without judgment or your own expectations. Military Sexual Assault is an act of sexual assault, coercion, or harassment which occurs while an individual is serving in the military.
I became a team member with IAVA’s Rapid Response Referral Program (RRRP) in August 2013. Prior to this I worked with mandated families and individuals who I visited up to several times per week in an effort to work toward empowerment, self-sufficiency, and positive change. Each family and individual I worked with experienced varying traumas at some point; and the experiences held by each was distinct to that individual or family. The one-on-one and group sessions I provided were done so that the availability for community and family support was initiated in a timely and professional manner without bias. While working with adolescent and adult survivors of sexual assault, it became apparent that the needs of those affected, were indicative of a need for additional awareness of sexual assault and what was needed from those providing services; the victim advocate (such as myself).
I became a Victim Advocate with the Department of Defense (DoD) Sexual Assault Prevention Response – SAPR Program in 2016. My role as a Victim Advocate was to provide support and care to anyone who was affected by any form of sexual assault. The Victim Advocate is present to assist the victim with guidance in their own decision making, escort to needed appointments, engage in open communication, and promotion of healing. In my role as Victim Advocate (2016-2017), I was able to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to help care for those whose trust had been broken, and work toward the continued therapeutic restoration of courage. The role of the Victim Advocate is to help mitigate the impact on the victim and guide in understanding of what resources are available to help them to move forward. I like to call this Hope-Courage. I came up with this term so that others know that there is hope in rebuilding and courage knowing that someone is there walking them through the initial process of getting connected to mental health, medical, and legal assistance.
Thinking of a Victim Advocate as an individual who is there like a road to a lighthouse, that will guide when someone is unable to do so on their own; is one way which one can envision what a Victim Advocate’s Role within the confines of the DoD.
The road to the lighthouse and waves hitting the shore symbolizes the difficult path an individual is facing as they work through their trauma and the impact of it. The light on the house is used as a guide to resources and continued healing for the survivor. And the lighthouse itself is the refuge of safety to remain in while healing takes place (no matter how long it takes). We are built to overcome and withstand many things, but this building (our bodies) which encapsulate our hearts and our minds, takes time to overcome while we withstand. The Victim Advocate is there to help when one falls or becomes unsure as to what the next step should be.
The After-math: Once all the resources are provided to female or male victim of military sexual assault, they are offered limited options as to continued service to country and the alternative. One can either stay where they are, change duty stations, or get out of the military. This is a decision that only an individual can make for themselves. That person must then worry about possible discrimination or retaliation wherever they choose to continue serving. A process and atmosphere that can become a re-living of the assault. The Hope-Courage Lighthouse has the ability to bring one to healing and the courage to stand up under scrutiny and the process of re-victimization.
As a Veteran Transition Manager, as a lighthouse guide for victims of military sexual assault; it has been to my advantage to utilize my knowledge and understanding of resources and care after being a military victim advocate. When a veteran or their family member reach out for resources and connection to services, it is a smoother transition since I already know where to send someone and the most appropriate referrals to make. The importance of me ensuring that a victim of military sexual assault is well cared for speaks also to what IAVA stands for in caring for those who served and continue to do so as well. The role of the Victim Advocate for me serves a dual purpose. I am able to be the advocate at my civilian job and have also been able to be an advocate as a military member. I am proud to be an advocate for all military members and veterans who are victims of military sexual assault, as well as the strong standing lighthouse guide that assists them in their healing.