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My journey as a victim advocate

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS) -- When I was a teenager, I saw a movie about a college student who was raped by her brother's fraternity brother at a party. I remember being saddened by what happened to her; not only by the act of sexual assault, but by how the school's administrators and students treated her when she decided to come forward. The school didn't want to believe her, because her rapist was loved by the school. Other students stared at her and judged her behavior that night.

That movie and its message have stuck with me for more than 15 years. I have wanted to be able to help victims of sexual assault for a long time --I just wasn't sure how.

Then, I learned about the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program. After learning about the victim advocacy program, I immediately signed up because I wanted to make a difference.

Last year, I received a phone call from the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator saying someone would be coming in the next day to fill out a report. After hanging up the phone, I began to pray that I would be able to provide the right amount of comfort and support she would need throughout this entire process.

The next day, I met my first client. My anxiety was up, and I was feeling very nervous because this was my first time doing this outside of a training environment. This person mattered, and I wanted to show her empathy and compassion during this difficult time. Her trust in another person had been violated, and I was trying to show her that she could trust me. I knew that would not be an easy task to accomplish, but it was important to be there through this very scary time.

Even with all the training I went through, nothing would have prepared me for that first encounter. I was looking at someone who had survived one of the most difficult experiences to live through. Feelings of anger and sadness arose within me. Words and thoughts flooded my brain, but I was finding it difficult to speak them aloud.

Fortunately, I wasn't going through this alone. The SARC was there, being my guide and mentor, walking us both through the process. Her presence and guidance helped put my mind and body at ease, knowing I would have someone to turn to when problems or questions came up.

When we went to the hospital, it was the first opportunity to sit with my new client and talk with her alone. While we waited for the nurse to come collect evidence, I struggled to find words that would begin to build her trust in me. She didn't know me--why should she possibly trust a complete stranger? I tried to come up with the right things to say, but the only thing I tell her was that I would be her rock, and that I was here for whatever she needed on her road to recovery.

By the time we met with the Office of Special Investigations the next day, I was beginning to feel like my presence beside her was a blessing. I started to feel hopeful, and I started to believe that my time spent advocating on her behalf would be successful. Throughout that long day of interviews and listening to her talk about what had happened to her, I began to fully understand how strong she was. I knew I needed to be strong for her too.

When that was completed, the focus shifted to the relationship I would build with her. After hearing her talk about herself and the struggles she was having, I began understanding her. No longer nervous that I would mess things up, my confidence in my abilities grew.

Over the next year, we would talk about how her case was progressing. Whenever she had a question I didn't know, I felt really comfortable talking it over with the SARC or the Special Victims Council. The SVC was her legal advisor when it came to anything concerning her victim rights or the upcoming court martial.

Having the SARC and the SVC as resources made it a lot easier to successfully advocate for her and make sure she was getting what she needed. Since the SVC was located nearby, it was easy for me to talk with her and get advice. It also helped to build trust in her, because I could see that she really cared about helping my client in whatever way she could.

Then the court martial began. I knew I had to be emotionally ready to take care of my client through a very stressful time in her recovery. While I sat in silence during other people's testimony, my mind was working hard to stay focused and not get upset.

When my client took the stand to talk about what had happened to her, an array of emotion came flooding in, but mostly, I felt proud. I knew her hard times over the past year had paid off, and she was standing up for herself, saying what had happened to her was not right.

When the trial concluded, and I heard the verdict, my only concern was for my client. This was another chapter in her life, and it was closing. The stress of the pretrial hearings and the court martial were over. Now, I knew she would be able to continue down her path toward being a survivor.

Throughout my experience this past year, I have felt thankful for the people I have worked with. The SARC and the SVC were always available and willing to talk me through any questions I had. They always made sure my needs were being taken care of, too. The commanders and first sergeants I met with took our concerns or needs very seriously and worked hard to make sure they were met. The legal office always took time to discuss the case in great detail, so we would know what to expect in the courtroom.

Because of what I went through last year, and knowing the people and resources available to me and my client, I have faith in our SARC's office and the VA's who volunteer to make a difference in someone's life. They have changed me and given me confidence in my abilities, which helped me reach out when my client needed someone to be in her corner and believe her story.

I know my client is a survivor, and I have faith that she will continue to thrive even after she is standing on her own. I am proud to have been a part of this organization. I feel good about helping someone during a difficult time in her life--we are both stronger today because of what we went through together.

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