PACIFIC OCEAN (NNS) -- In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and to help raise command awareness of prevention and response programs, a cake cutting ceremony was held on the mess decks of amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA 5), April 30.
The Department of Defense (DoD) theme of this year's initiative is: "Live Our Values: Step Up to Stop Sexual Assault."
Each year the DoD announces a theme and encourages military-wide involvement to help spread awareness of the consequences of sexual assault, the ways service members can prevent its occurrence and educate them on how to seek help, should it occur.
Sailors aboard Peleliu who are at the forefront of the battle for a sexual assault-free Navy are the volunteer Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) victim advocates.
A SAPR victim advocate is a volunteer who completes specialized training to qualify as a designated point of contact for victims.
"My responsibilities are to 'advocate' for the victim of a sexual assault. That includes providing information and support but never making a choice for that person," said Information Systems Technician 3rd Class Victoria Nelson, command victim advocate. "I should aim to empower a victim to take control of their life again, make informed choices for themselves and help them regain their strength and confidence."
In the event of an incident an advocate will aid the victim in reporting the incident. All reports are voluntary. The victim is given the option of a restricted report and an unrestricted report.
"The process of a restricted report is pretty cut and dry, so long as the chain of command, police, MAs [Master-at-Arms] or other such authorities do not know that a member was sexually assaulted, the ability to select a restricted report is not taken away. This means that the victim can talk to a family member if they desire but it does risk the information no longer being in control of the victim," said Nelson. "The member has most likely contacted a victim advocate in this instance, the advocate gathers whatever information the victim is comfortable telling them.
Once the data is collected and the form stating the victim wants a restricted report is signed these papers are sent to the SARC [Sexual Assault Response Coordinator] who enters it into a database where the victim is only identified by a case number. This information is only kept for a specific time span to allow a victim to go from restricted to unrestricted if they choose. The commanding officer is informed that an assault occurred in their command but that is it. The victim is still anonymous and can access some of the resources."
Nelson said that if information pertaining to a victim's case is compromised, the report can become unrestricted, even if it is not the victims wish. Although, a victim can always choose an unrestricted report at anytime, if a case becomes unrestricted it cannot be changed back or to a restricted report.
"An unrestricted report follows the same as a restricted report, except the commanding officer is given all the information available by official sources, not the victim advocate or SARC," said Nelson. "The process follows as any investigation would but many more resources are opened to the victim."
Despite either report being made, all correspondence between the victim and their victim advocate is keep between them. The advocate cannot be forced, coerced, or obligated to divulge anything that transpires between them and the victim, added Nelson.
Victim advocates not only handle case reporting and victim support. Many help coordinate and administer command training and education.
"We have to give training on what they can and can't do as Sailors. Not just watching videos, but getting them involved in scenarios," said Hospital Corpsmen 1st Class Janice Sapaden, who serves as a command victim advocate. She also spoke on the importance of training both senior and junior leadership and ensuring all Sailors are aware of the legal consequences of improper conduct.
Much can be asked of those who volunteer to become advocates, but it can also be rewarding for some that do.
"It's a good chance to help people that don't always have the means of getting help," said Aviation Ordnancemen 2nd Class Brandon Wideman, another command victim advocate. "It's getting better, I would like anyone who's not into it, or are just scared to come forward and say, 'Oh, you know what, I want to join that too,' to not be and help with the task."
The charge to end sexual assault from our ranks continues as well as the support for those who have been victimized.
For more information regarding the DoD SAPR program, visit www.sapr.mil or speak to a command SAPR coordinator.