CHIEVRES, Belgium - The U.S. military continues to expand on the progress it has made in serving the needs of thousands of sexual assault victims. Now it's giving them a voice in the criminal investigation and prosecutorial systems.

As part of the Army's efforts to combat sexual assault in the ranks, it has developed the Special Victim Counsel Program to protect the rights of sexual assault victims. Special victims' counsels are specially trained military attorneys, duty-bound to work for no one but the victim.

Working with a robust support system of victim advocates and victim witness liaisons, a special victims' counsel ensures that victims fully understand their rights throughout the military investigative, judicial and legal administrative processes.

"It can be difficult to prosecute sex crimes in the military because of the fear of retribution and the stress of the judicial process; it can be too long and traumatic," said Capt. Renee Darville, Northern Law Center client services chief.

"So the Army said, 'Let's give the victim an attorney. [Let's] give them a voice and agency to determine what level they want to participate in and help them feel more in control in the process.'"

According to the Department of Defense, victims must be confident that, should they report a sexual assault, they will be treated fairly. Part of that fair treatment is ensuring they know and can exercise their rights.

"I am an attorney specifically for the victim," Darville said. "I have 100 percent confidentiality. I am the victim's buffer and voice. I am here to help them heal, but also by building victims' trust in the system, we hope they'll be more willing to report offenders."

Last year, the Department of Defense received a total of 6,083 reports of sexual assault for allegations involving service members, according to the fiscal year 2015 Department of Defense annual report on sexual assault in the military.

Despite a substantial increase in reporting over the past 10 years, a significant number of sexual assaults still go unreported each year. Just 23 percent of the estimated 20,300 service member victims who indicated experiencing a sexual assault reported the crime.

Reasons for not reporting an incident of sexual assault that were cited by focus group participants included: negative reactions from peers, impact on reputation, and concerns for possible repercussions for collateral misconduct.

In response, the military now requires that victims reporting an assault be notified of their right to consult with a special victims' counsel and of the availability of other legal assistance. Victims must receive this explanation at the time they report a sexual assault.

In addition, no one in a victim's chain of command or the accused's chain of command may influence a special victims' counsel in providing legal support to a victim.

"Our efforts are having an impact, but there are still many hurdles to overcome," said Army Maj. Gen. Camille Nichols, director of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

"Reporting the crime is essential for our ability to bring care and advocacy to survivors and hold offenders appropriately accountable."

Most respondents to the 2015 Military Investigation and Justice Experience Survey, which collected survivor feedback on the military justice process, reported that they were highly satisfied with the support they received, with 77 percent saying they would recommend other survivors come forward.

It is imperative that Army leaders and Soldiers, especially sexual assault victims, have confidence in the military justice system, the annual report said. Instilling trust and inspiring victims to report sexual offenses will assist the military in achieving the cultural change it desires.

Until then?

"[JAG] is a safe space," Darville said. "People come to legal assistance every day for all kinds of reasons. So a victim does not have to worry about disclosing why they are here. People can access me without that fear."

She added, "It is never too early or too late to reach out. I can support at any point in the process."

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Members of the DOD community who have been affected by sexual assault can access 24/7, confidential, anonymous support through the DOD Safe Helpline at www.safehelpline.org, by calling 877-995-5247. The USAG-Benelux Special Victims Counsel program is located at the Northern Law Center at SHAPE, Bldg. 318.