Finding a safe place: Soldier volunteers to help victims of sexual assault
June 28, 2011
BASRA, Iraq, June 28, 2011 -- “We were anxious to find justice, but in our ambition, we failed to see the signs of the victim who was mentally deteriorating and we did not notice,” said Maj. Paula Rodriguez, retelling the story of a female Soldier who became a victim of sexual assault her first day stationed in Germany.
“It was a very sad case,” said Rodriguez. “That case left a great impact on me.”
Sexual assault is a problem the U.S. military recognizes all too well. Rodriguez, currently the property management officer-in-charge for the 36th Infantry Division, has a passion for volunteering and helping the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Born in Bilboa, Spain, Rodriguez’s parents immigrated to Frankfurt, Germany in her infancy. In 1994 she left home with her husband, a U.S. soldier, to live in Fort Hood, Texas.
Rodriguez joined the U.S. Army in 1997 and found herself stationed in Germany less than two years later as a legal specialist with the Victim and Witness Program. It was there she experienced her first interaction with sexual assault cases.
The victim, whose story had impacted Rodriguez, suffered from then-undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and chose to leave the Army once her attacker was convicted.
“Victims feel like they must have done something to trigger the crime,” Rodriguez said. “The community might not understand that it affects someone’s life forever.”
After returning to Texas, Rodriguez felt motivated to volunteer and try to make a change.
“I wanted to make a difference in my community,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t give the money, so giving my time was more useful.”
In 2007 Rodriguez chose SafePlace in Austin, Texas, a crisis center for the victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. She said that non-profit centers like SafePlace are underfunded and are in dire need of volunteers.
Now a hospital victim advocate, Rodriguez quickly jumps into action after getting the call that a sexual assault has occurred. She goes to the hospital to console victims, walk them through the Sexual Assault Forensics Exam, and advise them on programs offered by SafePlace.
“I tell them that they may be a victim, but they still have rights,” she said.
Emergency housing, legal aid, and free counseling are among the programs Rodriguez guides the victims to at SafePlace, and she tries to fight the stigmas given to victims that result in undue shame.
When Rodriguez, who now makes her home in Austin, transferred from active duty to the Texas Army National Guard in 2008, she brought along her passion for helping victims of sexual assault to her military career. She volunteered as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the Army and Air National Guard in Texas.
There, Rodriguez, now a mother of four, manages the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program and works with the military and local community to provide the care needed for sexual assault and domestic violence victims by assigning advocates to them.
“It’s an amazing program for the servicemembers who are victims,” Rodriguez said, “because it assists in recuperating and making sure it’s addressed accordingly.”
Back in Austin, Rodriguez, a University of Texas alumna, does her duty as the SARC during the day, while spending her nights volunteering at SafePlace.
“The two jobs do go hand-in-hand in an odd way,” she said.
Now deployed with the 36th Inf. Div., she acts as the deputy SARC and brings her volunteer duty and experience with her to southern Iraq.
Soldiers are often asked to volunteer for duties, from boring chores to vital missions. Rodriguez enjoys giving her time to volunteer for a cause she believes in: helping victims find a safe place.