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Deployed medical experts learn skills to identify sexual assault

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Stephenie Wade
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
From across Afghanistan, 22 U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy medical professionals gathered here for the Sexual Assault Forensic Examinations training.

Collecting forensic evidence from patients reporting sexual assault is essential. It can be used to identify an assailant, recent sexual contact and support an individual's report.

Army Col. Pauline Gross, the branch chief of the Interservice Physician Assistant Program at Fort Sam Houston, Texas; and Maj. Alecia Wilson from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, were invited to instruct the four-day course.

"We already have the medical expertise -- what we taught them this week was why they are doing parts of the forensic exam a certain way," Gross said.  "Attention to detail is very important. Medical professionals need to be proficient when conducting these exams, because evidence presented during a court case can be crucial for the victim as well as an accused assailant."

When someone is sexually assaulted, going through an extensive medical exam can be a lengthy process depending on what happened and how much trauma occurred.

Capt. Parida Mata, a 455th Medical Operations Squadron clinical emergency room nurse deployed from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., said she hopes she never has to use this training but she understands sexual assault happens everywhere, even in a deployed environment.

"It my job to be here for the victim and the alleged suspect," Mata said. "It's not easy because you have to treat everyone as a patient and not judge them. The important part is to make sure you collect the right evidence."

As part of the hands-on training exercise, the physicians had to conduct an exam using the sexual assault evidence collection kit on simulated victims. The victims were marked with bruises, scars and a chemical to suggest bodily fluid was present. The physicians used an ultraviolet light to inspect their body and took photographs of the victim.

Master Sgt. Berdella Nunez, the Joint Theater Trauma System NCO in charge and a trainer deployed from Fort Sam Houston, volunteered to play the role of a victim during the class. She helped the medical professionals facilitate sexual assault interviews, training them on what to expect.

"I volunteered because I have been a chaperone before and in order to help the victim we need to make sure we know how to conduct a thorough exam to include asking the right questions," Nunez said. "Sexual assault is a zero tolerance policy. All genders need to remember they have the option to report it but need to make sure they always get examined."

Army Maj. Simeon Smith, a Task Force Medical-Afghanistan public health nurse, said one of his concerns was that a sexual assault victim may have to fly several hours to get medical treatment and forensic examination, and that can be very unsettling.

"The training provides additional SAFE providers, ensuring we have adequate and continued coverage throughout the theater in case they are needed," Smith said. "By having trained sexual assault examiners at the forward operating bases, victims can get the care they need in a timely manner while being at ease."

At the completion of the training, there will be a total of 35 sexual assault forensic examiners across Afghanistan.

Smith said, "with the trained members in theater, leadership will know victims have medical providers ready to take care of their people."