How victim advocates help the healing

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Guilt. Shame. Disbelief that anything like this could ever happen.

For victims of sexual assault, the crime committed against them is a violation of their bodies that can never be undone.

Though it is something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, they don't need to bear the burden alone. Across the Air Force, victim advocates offer an understanding heart and a steady shoulder to cry on.

The moment a victim decides to report the crime is the moment the victim advocate steps in, ready to be a steadying force during the emotionally trying time ahead.

From medical appointments to legal consultations, these "VAs" go through the reporting process with the victim. They offer far more than just a sympathetic ear - in reality, they devote a part of themselves in providing a calming presence in the unexpected and violent storm.

"Sitting next to a victim, it's easy to feel helpless," said Senior Airman Staci Cooper, a victim advocate and 509th Operations Support Squadron wing scheduler. "You wonder, 'How can I make this better?' But there really is no making it better ... all we can do is be there."

Cooper herself is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse -- throughout her life she thought it was the norm until she joined the Air Force and was stationed at Whiteman. Once she got here and was assaulted again, she went straight to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator's office.

"Before then, I never got a chance for my voice to be heard," she said. "The VA who was paired up with me was just awesome. When you're assaulted, you lose all control over your life and she helped me regain some of that power. I was finally able to heal from the things that happened in my past."

Seeing the effect a VA could have on a victim's healing process spurred Cooper to become an advocate herself. Now, she and other VAs dedicate themselves to help others who decide to come forward take an important step in that process.

"When that person walks into our office, they are coming to us as a victim," said Amy Creighton, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program assistant. "When they walk out, we want them to be leaving as a survivor.

"The role of victim advocates is priceless," she added. "They are people who genuinely care about what happened and are ready to guide anyone through the process. When a victim knows what's ahead of them, the task of reporting the assault can be less daunting."

Getting to a point where a victim is ready to report is always varied, but it is never an easy choice. Often, shame or guilt over what happened stops him or her from coming forward.
It can be easy to worry that reporting a sexual assault might affect one's career, especially in the Air Force. The individual may also fear the impact a report may have on interpersonal relationships with co-workers and colleagues.

"It's important that victims know what happened to them may shape them, but it surely doesn't define them," said Master Sgt. Anthony Axton, a victim advocate and 442nd Maintenance Squadron accessory flight chief. "Nobody at any time should ever be subjected to something like this; men and women don't ask to be assaulted. But if they are, and decide to come forward, a victim advocate will be waiting to help them."

As a male advocate, Axton has yet to be called upon to help a sexual assault victim, so instead he has played another important role in the healing process: working with the victim's male significant other.

"Sexual assault is a crime that really affects everyone around the violated person," he said. "As males, our instincts are to be the protector and it's easy to feel helpless when someone hurt the woman we love in that way. But if you as a husband or boyfriend are so mad or upset that you take matters into your own hands and seek revenge, you won't be there to support your loved one when they need you."

Axton added that it is also hard for the spouse or significant other to accept the drastic changes a tragedy like sexual assault can have on a relationship.

"Part of my role as a VA is also to help them answer questions like, 'Why won't she let me touch or hug her anymore?'" said Axton. "I help them understand what their piece in the puzzle will be as the victim puts her life back together, and I help them understand they need to not act out."

As victim advocates guide the victims and their families down the path of healing, they strive to be approachable and discreet.

"When you're with a victim advocate, nobody knows it," said Cooper. "Nobody knows who we are - you could just be having lunch with a friend or heading to legal for another reason. We put the victim's privacy in the forefront of everything we do, and it's important they know that."

Cooper added it is also important for victims to see action being taken.

"Some people might not make an unrestricted report because they think, 'Hey, I'm going to go through this horrible process and not see anything get done about it,'" she said.

"But with all the importance wing leadership places on it and given the level of priority for sexual assault prevention in the Department of Defense, action is being taken and that encourages more victims to come forward."

For questions regarding victim advocates or any other sexual assault prevention or response issues, please call the Whiteman SARC office at (660) 687-7272.

No matter the type of report, however, anyone who has experienced the trauma and heartache of sexual assault should know they have a friend in the victim advocates.