WASHINGTON — One of the first things you notice about the Pentagon's sexual assault support hotline is its non-military look.
No screaming eagles or red-white-and-blue flapping in the breeze for the Department of Defense Safe Helpline. Instead, its earth-tone website and brochures and Java Jackets assure confidentiality. "DoD" shows up, barely, in the smallest font. They look more like promotional materials for a bank than one of the Pentagon's main weapons to aid victims of sexual assault.
That's by design, said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, who leads the Pentagon's effort to battle the scourge of sexual assault in its ranks. Focus groups told officials to emphasize gender-neutral themes (nearly one in four who seek help is a man) and, above all, to keep their promise of secrecy.
"They did not want it to look like a DoD website," said Snow, who granted USA Today access to a briefing at the helpline's downtown Washington offices.
Since 2011, Helpline staff have advised 20,000 servicemembers and civilians, referring about a third of them to military and civilian sources to lodge complaints or to get help from professionals for medical or mental health issues. Group chats, moderated by a social worker, have been offered twice a week for about a year. An app can be downloaded to develop an individual care plan.
Although Safe Helpline is funded by the Pentagon, the military has outsourced it to a victims advocacy organization: the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It costs $2.76 million per year to run.
"This is an important resource for survivors to get confidential help and I am encouraged by the fact DoD is working with such an outstanding organization to execute the program," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a leading critic of the Pentagon's response to sexual assault, said in a statement. "But it will not be nearly enough if we don't do everything we should to restore trust in the system allowing survivors to have the confidence to report the crimes committed against them so we can get predators out of the military where they don't belong."
The Pentagon estimates that there were 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact -- from groping to rape -- in 2012. The majority of those incidents are not reported to authorities as crimes. For example, in fiscal year 2013, there were 3,553 reports of sexual assault in the ranks.
On Tuesday morning, three counselors answered queries by phone or online. Their narrow office has a bulletin board with anonymous notes of appreciation from victims. One thanks a staffer for helping her or him "feel more sane."
They offer round-the-clock coverage and free access to any servicemember. If it's a nighttime call from somewhere where troops are stationed, the caller could want nothing more than advice on how to relax and fall asleep, says Jennifer Marsh, vice president for victim services at the network. Callers during the day often seek referrals for counseling.
Victims are assured that calls aren't recorded and that information on internet providers is not collected, Marsh says. Counselors don't ask for names, ages or branch of service.
Compromising "personally identifiable information" is often a victim's greatest fear, Snow said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat whose legislation bolstered victim protection and overhauled prosecution of military sex crimes, called the Helpline "an important resource that lends an array of support to victims while protecting their anonymity."
Stories in the media about sexual assault can increase calls and traffic to the website, Marsh said. An episode on the CBS program NCIS is expected to generate another spike.
She encouraged victims to call the Helpline at 877-995-5247 or visit the website, SafeHelpline.org.
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