Focused training allows Guardsmen to enhance their roles as Sexual Assault Victim Advocates

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The training can be both challenging and supportive, as trained professionals and instructors assisted victim advocates comprehend their roles, and process cases that involve sexual abuse and assault.

The three days of instruction and class work, held here June 24-26, allowed members of the Oregon Army and Air National Guard bolster their skills and reinforced their responsibilities as Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) victim advocates.

In a report released by the Pentagon in May of this year, 5,061 service members reported being sexually assaulted in 2013. The record high number and increase of reported claims can be attributed to new efforts to encourage reporting and is a direct result of the SAPR program.

The overall goal of the training helps victim advocates serve as facilitators and as a confidential source to aid a victim of sexual abuse, and begin the process of getting the assistance they need to recover.

"That's what we're here for," said Army National Guard Maj. Rey Agullana, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), for Joint Forces Headquarters, in Salem, Oregon.

"This training is to give knowledge and encourage proficiency so that you can be successful in your roles as (victim advocates) victim advocates," he added.

In his role as the SARC, Agullana oversees the SAPR program for the State. The training helps victim advocates remain current in their roles as they are required to attend 32 hours of training within a two-year period.

The informal class structure allows for interaction between victim advocates and instructors, affording a wide range of questions to be asked, and issues to be discussed. This was the first time the training had been held at the Portland Air National Guard Base.

Agullana pointed out that although the rates of sexual assault are highest among women, "the actual numbers are higher among men, because more men serve in the military," he said.

Along with stories and case studies the group watched several videos that explored the nature of sexual violence and how the military is working to educate uniformed members on the lasting impacts of sexual assault. As victim advocates, the challenges can be daunting when having to help and report cases of sexual assault and abuse, Agullana said.

"Just remember to have faith in your leadership and your SARCs; they are there for support and advice," he said.

Dr. DeAnn Smetana, 142nd Fighter Wing director of physiological health, emphasized the concept of self-care, as she worked with the group to recognize the warning signs.

Just as victims of sexual assault may experience emotional symptoms such as depression and anger, physical magnifications can develop too; often times, consequently, a victim advocate can develop some of the same impacting symptoms.

"It is important that as advocates, you don't reach burn out," Smetana said, as she described the consequences of taking on cases where tragic issues of the victims can resonate with victim advocates.

"As caregivers, each of you has unique traits that allow you to give the passion and assistance this role constantly demands," she said.

In one particular exercise, Smetana had individuals pair up, then with one person stationary, the other approached until they hit, "a personal comfort zone," to illustrate how each person has their own degree of 'comfort area'.

To better assist victims of sexual assault, Kelly Dominici, from the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington, further elaborated on the role of victim advocates when helping individuals suffering from sexual abuse.

"With trauma, there is no 'one-way' that someone responses to an MST (Military Sexual Trauma) event," Dominici said.

She described to the class that it is not uncommon for some individuals to wait for years to get help or begin the healing process.

"There is a stigma behind sexual assault, where self-blame or self-worth comes into question for those suffering," Dominici said.

She pointed out that victims will be left with lingering unanswered questions.

"Often times women will question themselves--why they didn't they fight back during an assault, whereas men will often question issues associated with sexual orientation."

Even as the media has recently reported backlogs for VA medical cases, helping members get the support they need has not affected victims of military sexual trauma.

"For MST cases, the VA does a really good job of getting a consultant assigned in the first 48 hours," said Dominici.

Elaborating on the assistance and process, Dominici said, a normal cycle of treatment can take anywhere from six to nine months of self-follow through.

"The assistance and professionals in place can help bring about dramatic and enduring changes for those suffering from a sexual assault," she said.