Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Sexual assault response coordinator, victim and victim advocates talk about sexual assault, importance of reporting

Robins Air Force Base, Ga. -- As Sexual Assault Awareness Month approaches, Robins is bringing the often taboo subject into the spotlight.

The April observance month will kick off here with a sexual assault awareness luncheon, 'Stand Up Against Sexual Assault...Make a Difference,' on April 5 at 11 a.m. in the Officers' Club ballroom. Dr. Mark Lafferty, a locally-based obstetrician and gynecologist, will serve as the luncheon's guest speaker.

On April 20, Robins will host 'Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,' a one-mile walk at the Base Fitness Center's outdoor walking track for everyone with base access to offer support to sexual assault victims. If rain occurs, the event will be moved inside the Fitness Center.

Cindy Graver, sexual assault response coordinator here, is working with the 78th Security Forces Squadron to set up a self-defense and safety tips class that will run April 4, 11, 18, and 25, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the gym next to the Health and Wellness Center.

People interested in participating in any of the month's activities should contact the SARC office at 327-7272 or 926-2946.

While the month provides the opportunity for education, Robins began making sexual assault awareness and getting help for its victims a priority back in June of 2005 when it started the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention program, a Department of Defense-wide initiative.

Mrs. Graver said sexual assault is a serious problem that affects more people than society may think.

"Statistics tell us that one out of four females can be expected to be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, while one in six males may be sexually assaulted in their lifetime," she said.

Females age 18 to 24 are at the highest risk to become victims. Mrs. Graver said that is in part due to age, the maturity level of the person, and situations people find themselves in.

Mrs. Graver said many sexual assault victims live with the aftermath of their assault.

"A lot of our sexual assault victims suffer from post traumatic stress disorder," she said. "It's very much like when people go to war and they come back (and) they have flashbacks. Well, victims of sexual assault often suffer from PTSD. They have flashbacks of the assault or parts of it. They play the tape over and over in their head."

While many victims don't report such assaults, Mrs. Graver said the base has a variety of reporting methods for those who want to make a report.

Restricted reporting, an option available only to active-duty military members and those members serving under Title 10 status, provides the victim the avenue to report an assault without revealing the victim's identity. With such reporting, the SARC doesn't report the assault, but instead contacts helping agencies here to be on stand-by to help the victim when needed. Many assaults reported in this way later become unrestricted reports.

Unrestricted reporting, which is available to all DOD civilians, military members and DOD family members, allows for identity of the victim and initiates an investigation by the Office of Special Investigations. A third reporting option is the Independent reporting option which involves an eyewitness to a sexual assault making a report about the incident.

Independent reports fall in the same category as unrestricted reports, which involve investigations.

Robins has about 11 volunteer victim advocates throughout the base to help sexual assault victims here go through the reporting process. VAs, as they're commonly called, provide emotional support and a physical presence for the victim as they go through reporting procedures, Mrs. Graver said.

Master Sgt. LaSandra Simmons, a VA at Air Force Reserve Command Headquarters since October 2005, said she has seen the importance of her role.

"I find being a victim's advocate very rewarding," she said. "I feel that the victims need someone to be with them during these trying times, and my being there, even though I feel like I'm not doing much. They're very appreciative of someone just being there on call for them 24 hours a day, just someone they can reach out and talk to and not have to feel apprehensive with."

Sergeant Simmons said such advocates are there to give victims an ear to listen.

She said the program is an important tool for victims.

"This (sexual assault) is something that needs to stop, so we need to have a zero tolerance," she said. "For those victims who are assaulted, they need to know that there are avenues that they can go to and that there are people who can help."

Sergeant Simmons said victims need to know there is hope.

"You're not going to be a victim forever," she said. "You will be a survivor and we'll get you there."

What to know
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For help when sexual assault occurs, contact Robins' Sexual Assault Response Coordinator 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 327-7272. 

The following question and answer series resulted from a one-on-one interview between the Robins Rev-Up and a local victim of sexual assault.

Q. Were you afraid to come forward and report your sexual assault? Why?
A. "Yes, I was scared just because of the ramifications that come with reporting something like this. People always look at you as the problem, and I guess with the different TV shows that come on TV, it always makes it look like the woman's fault no matter what happens. It's always about what she had on. It's always about how she acted and that she was the cause of what happened to her. So, all of those thoughts were running through my head."

Q. What was your experience when you came forward?
A. "There were people that used to speak to me every morning and they stopped speaking to me. People would just stare at me." 

Q. How did Robins' Sexual Assault Program help you take that step?
A. "I just made a phone call to one of my friends who put me in touch with the military side, the Military Equal Opportunity officer, and then he put me in touch with the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. So, basically I described what happened and the SARC told me that I had to report this, and that's when the whole process began. It was a good experience. The victim's advocate was wonderful. The SARC, she was wonderful as well."

Q. How has sexual assault changed your life?
A. "Well, it's changed my life in the sense that now I'm a victim. I never imagined in a million years (I would be one). I thought I was strong enough to never have to go through a situation like this. I never thought I'd be the girl on the TV. I never thought I would be the girl in the newspaper, but I am. I guess I'm a lot more sensitive now to different things I hear on TV and I read in the newspaper about different women being taken advantage of because I know how they feel."

Q. What advice would you offer other sexual assault victims to help them recover?
A. "I would say, even though it may be hard to come forward, that's the best thing that you could ever do because the problem with this particular crime is it's so under reported because the woman is so scared about what's going to happen to her. Definitely, I was scared. But, there are enough support systems in place that everything will work out just fine. But, the best thing they can do is come forward and know there are other people out there this has happened to and they're not alone."