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The judge advocate gave one victim of sexual assault the courage to take the stand at trial, to remain professional when it would have been easier not to, to get through one more day.
Another victim took comfort knowing this: “I had someone to help just me and no one else, someone to speak on my behalf.”
A new cadre of Air Force attorneys known as special victims counselors has assisted 300 airmen since January, when Judge Advocate General Lt. Gen. Richard Harding announced a new program targeting sexual assault. Until then, about 30 percent of victims who agreed to cooperate in their cases backed out before they went to court-martial, saying the process was too tiresome and tedious.
“Providing victims their own legal counsel is a huge step forward in the advancement of victims’ rights in the military,” said Capt. Allison DeVito, chief of the victims issues and policy branch of the Military Justice Division at Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Feedback so far indicates the program’s objectives are working, DeVito said. Victims feel like they are being advocated for. They have a better understanding of the process. They feel empowered.
“The special victims counsel helps them understand every single step, from the first meeting with Air Force investigators to court-martial,” she said. “They are there to provide a supportive role to the victim and to make them more confident in the process, to explain to them why they are being interviewed by defense counsel, why they are asking certain questions.”
If those questions begin encroaching on the victim’s privacy rights, DeVito said, “they can advise their client of that.”
Airmen with special victims counselors appear to be willing to see the case through to court-martial. All but two of the 27 airmen who had special counsel and whose cases have concluded decided to go forward with prosecution, DeVito said.
Similarly, 12 of the 22 who filed restricted reports but sought representation later changed the reports to unrestricted, which involves law enforcement and the chain-of-command.
All of those who participated in the program and provided feedback indicated they were “extremely satisfied,” DeVito said. Ninety-five percent said their special victims counsel advocated effectively on their behalf and helped them understand the process.
The early success of the program, which Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently testified to on Capitol Hill, is a bright spot for the military in a year plagued by scandal.
Welsh described the impact as “a huge improvement, which allows us to prosecute more cases over time.”
Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Kay Granger, R-Texas, introduced legislation May 15 that would direct the Defense Department to provide special victims counsel to sex assault victims across the services.
Sixty special victims counselors have assisted the 300 airmen on a part-time basis since January, splitting the new duties with other tasks, DeVito said. The job will soon transition to full-time, with 24 judge advocates and 10 paralegals working only with sex assault victims.
The special counselors are assigned to Air Force bases around the world — in the U.S. as well as Japan, Korea and Europe. “We will also provide counsel to victims who are deployed to Afghanistan and other locations. We won’t have a [judge advocate] in theater, but we still have that capability,” DeVito said.
An evaluation of the program is due to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in November.
“We’re excited about opening up the books and sharing the successes and challenges,” DeVito said. “We have a lot of great experience and lessons to share moving forward.”■