MADISON, Wis. — When disaster strikes a community — natural or man-made — the Wisconsin National Guard is there to support local authorities.
When a personal disaster like sexual assault strikes a Wisconsin National Guard member, a community of support is available according to Robert Brania, Wisconsin National Guard sexual assault response coordinator (SARC).
“Since the National Guard has no installation-based facilities in Wisconsin to provide direct medical and mental health services to victims of sexual assault,” Brania said, “it is our job to ensure sexual assault victims serving in our organization get the resources they need to assist with their recovery and we do that by connecting victims to civilian resources within their community.”
Brania’s office and a network of nearly 50 trained National Guard victim advocates around the state support victims by connecting them to resources throughout Wisconsin. This is an important distinction because victim advocates are not health care professionals or counselors.
“Whatever support we cannot directly offer we will work diligently to find,” said Amber Garfoot, a Wisconsin National Guard victim advocate. “Each survivor’s story is unique, which ultimately determines the course of action or services that the advocate will provide.”
“Community resources we can direct victims to include rape-crisis shelters, women’s shelters, community resource centers,” Brania said. “It is our job to get a victim from point A to point B, which are usually civilian resources.”
Most counties in Wisconsin have a variety of sexual assault resources funded either by donations or government grants. This means that they generally do not charge fees for their services.
“The Dane County Rape Crisis Center, Milwaukee’s Sojourner House, Portage’s Hope House and Wausau’s Women’s Community are several of the providers across the state that stand ready to assist our Service members,” Brania said. “There are many others throughout the state.”
The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA) is the umbrella agency that sets standards for victim advocate training and serves as a directory to sexual assault services available throughout the state.
“If WCASA recognizes an agency and promotes its contact information then we trust they are professional and we provide that information to Guard members seeking help,” Brania remarked.
The religious nature or ideological viewpoint of an organization is immaterial to guiding people to a resource, Brania noted. He views differences between organizations as a strength.
“We 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,” Garfoot added. “This is a victim-centered program and we connect people with programs that meet their preferences.”
The licensed counselors and social workers at Wisconsin’s five Vet Centers in Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, La Crosse and Wausau are important resources Brania and Garfoot have worked with to get people the help they need.
“Vet Centers are support and counseling centers entirely separate from VA hospitals,” said Jennifer Sluga with the Madison Vet Center. “Our office has worked closely with Wisconsin’s SARC to assist sexual assault victims and we have provided referrals to each other.”
Madison’s Vet Center covers 16 counties and its counselors travel to the district’s major cities and rural areas to bring services to veterans and their families.
“We serve the veteran and members of their entire family,” Sluga added. “Sexual trauma affects family relationships regardless of who suffered the assault.”
Not all Wisconsin National Guard members qualify as veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs; however, the Vet Center will assist any service member who is a victim of sexual assault.
“All military personnel are covered for our services if the attack occurs while in a duty status,” Sluga said. “We also provide five stabilization visits to any Guard member regardless of duty status, then we will find a referral to a community partner. We never leave someone alone.”
What makes Vet Centers unique is that a majority of the staff must have served in the military. Sluga is a former member of the Wisconsin National Guard.
“100 percent of Madison’s Vet Center counselors are deployed veterans,” Sluga said. “Our military experience helps us communicate with people about the unique nature of the military and we are able to find them the help they need so they can have a better and healthier life.”