Soldiers and Airmen train on a regular basis to defend themselves and their units from an enemy assault. Positions can be fortified or concealed, vehicles can be up-armored, and roving patrols can scour the perimeter for enemy activity.
Sexual assault, however, exploits vulnerabilities that exist despite heightened awareness and vigilant attempts to protect against it. In those moments when defenses fall short, a victim advocate is a valuable resource.
The Wisconsin National Guard’s victim advocacy program supports a broad spectrum of incidents affecting its Soldiers and Airmen. According to Amber Garfoot, a support member with the Wisconsin National Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, such incidents can occur when service members are on duty, off duty or even outside of anything related to National Guard service.
The nature of the incident does impact the scope of service we are able to provide as an organization,” Garfoot said, “but from an advocacy service standpoint, we open our doors to all of our service members regardless of how or when their crime occurred.
“Our main concern is making sure that all our survivors are receiving the level of care that they need to effectively maintain their military membership,” she continued, “and to ensure that they are aware of all the resources available to assist them specific to the details of their circumstances.”
The Wisconsin National Guard’s victim advocates are trained to offer victims of sexual violence information and help finding resources, emotional support, and help filling out paperwork. Sometimes advocates accompany victims to court, court martial hearings or other appearances. Victim advocates may also contact criminal justice, medical or social service agencies to obtain help or assistance for victims.
Garfoot said Wisconsin National Guard victim advocates provide service members with updates on their cases and work to solve problems as they arise. But she cautioned that victim advocates do not provide legal support or advice, and they are not counselors.
“Victims of military sexual trauma are afforded legal support through the Special Victims Counsel, and are offered counseling resources outside of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) team,” Garfoot said. “Whatever support we cannot directly offer we will work diligently to find.”
She explained that advocates do not tell victims what they should do, but provide information about different options available and encourage the victim to maintain control over their decisions and recovery process.
Victim advocates must pass an in-depth background check and suitability check, complete an 80-hour advocacy training course and 32 hours of continuing education every 24 months to maintain National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) credentials. NOVA credentialing is required to work with sexual assault survivors.
Garfoot said the advocate’s immediate responsibility once contacted by a victim is to address imminent health and safety needs.
“Each survivor’s story is unique, which ultimately determines the course of action or services that the advocate will provide,” Garfoot said. The reporting option the survivor chooses helps determine a course of action.
Soldiers and Airmen can file restricted or unrestricted reports. The restricted report maintains victim confidentiality, but law enforcement is not notified and no investigation is initiated. However, the victim is provided access to counseling, mental and physical health support as needed. Unrestricted reports are referred to local law enforcement or the Wisconsin Department of Justice for investigation and potential prosecution. If the alleged assailant is a Wisconsin National Guard member, the Guard can take disciplinary or administrative action based on the outcome of the law enforcement investigation. The Wisconsin National Guard can conduct an administrative investigation, and pursue other disciplinary actions, if warranted, in the event that local law enforcement unsubstantiates or chooses not to prosecute a sexual assault allegation.
The Wisconsin National Guard currently has three full-time sexual assault response coordinators and one victim advocate coordinator. All full-time staff have advocate credentialing and experience. The Wisconsin National Guard also has nearly 50 more people, who serve part or full-time in the Guard, for whom victim advocacy is an additional duty. However, those additional advocates can be placed on orders quickly to assist a sexual assault survivor.
“The benefit to having traditional Guardsmen as advocates is that they are scattered all throughout the state, based on their home of record,” Garfoot said. “This allows us to cover most areas of the state with a readily available advocate.”
Measuring the effectiveness of a sexual assault victim advocacy program can be difficult and controversial, but Garfoot said she considers the number of people who utilize the service and their comfortability in reporting a sexual assault.
“Most people assume that higher numbers of reports indicates that the organization has a problem with sexual assault, rather than seeing higher numbers of reports from the perspective of individuals trusting the organization to assist them,” she said. “Sexual violence has plagued our society for years — it is the current culture that is opening up the doors for survivors to speak up about their experiences, and feel no shame in asking for help.”