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Sexual assault affects victims for a lifetime, and one way the Army is helping to mitigate the traumatic effects those victims face is by providing victim advocates.

The Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention Victim Advocacy Program provides victims of sexual assault a support system as they work through a report of sexual assault, whether restricted or unrestricted, according to Joni Martin, Fort Rucker sexual assault counselor.

"When a person has a sexual trauma, the victim advocate's job is to advocate for that person," said Martin. "What they do is take the service member or Family member to appointments, go with them if they need to meet with command and even intercede with the unit command if they need to."

The victim advocate can also assist with moving the victim to another unit, escorting patients to inpatient treatments and generally being there for the victim when needed, she added.

The Army transitioned from a civilian victim advocacy program to one that is a more standardized process for the Army, to include victim advocates in each unit who are Soldiers to better serve the victims.

"I was very skeptical to start when the transition happened and I wasn't too happy about it, but I am now," said Martin. "The civilian victim advocates didn't have the insight into the Army that the military victim advocates do.

"(The advocates) are getting the training to be the support system they need to be for the victims, but they also bring that military knowledge that helps them maneuver things in the Soldier's world," she continued. "It's also someone that the victim could better relate to and it keeps them from feeling alone in their unit."

Martin said the role of the victim advocate is vital in the process to working through a sexual trauma, adding that the advocates provide her a peace of mind knowing that the victims are in good hands.

"When a sexual assault occurs, the victim advocate immediately gets involved," said the sexual assault counselor. "The victim advocate brings the patient here for their appointments and sits and waits while the victim has their appointment, so I don't have to worry what's going to happen to them after the appointment. I know the victim advocate is going to be there for them."

This support system is vital because, contrary to popular belief, a sexual trauma is a trauma of the mind, not the body, said Martin.

"Very few people are physically injured by a sexual assault," she said. "It's what it does to your thinking process and your mind that is so important. The more distance there is from the assault to the treatment, the more time your mind has to cause you more damage."

That's why Martin said it's imperative that victims get treatment as soon as possible. The quicker a report is made, the quicker the help is available to the victim, then the less time the brain has to focus on the negative and often incorrect aspects of the trauma.

Having these services available and having someone in the unit who is available to the victims makes it easier for them to get through the reporting process and get on to treatment, said the sexual assault counselor.

When a victim makes a report, they have an option of making their report restricted or unrestricted.

A restricted report means there won't be any notification to the unit about the report, other than to the victim advocate, said Martin. Restricted reports are also not reported to law enforcement, but do allow the victim to get the treatment services available to them.

When a report is unrestricted, the process begins for some punitive action or investigation against the alleged offender.

"The criminal investigation division will get involved and the unit command is notified of the incident, but either way the services here at behavioral health are available to them," said Martin.

Those services include: individual treatment, group treatment, medical services, psychiatric services and sometimes intensive outpatient services, if needed.

Martin said that the victim advocacy program is "hugely successful" because of the education that the Army and Fort Rucker has disseminated through the ranks about sexual assault.

"I don't believe that there is a person on Fort Rucker who doesn't know how to get in touch with a victim advocate if they needed one because the units are very focused on it, the command team is very focused on this and it's a real passion right now in the Army," she said. "They are making sure that these victims have somebody available to them at all times."

To contact the 24/7 Army Community Service Victim Advocacy Helpline, call 379-7947. To contact the Family Advocacy Program, call 255-7029.