Sexual Assault Response Coordinator sets new objectives for deployment

Lt. Col. Denise Thompson

Reserve Lt. Col. Denise Thompson, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, educates all Airmen deployed to the 332nd AEW and associated air expeditionary groups regarding sexual assault reporting and how to access victim support.

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- (Editor's Note: Lt. Col. Thompson is a Reservist assigned to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas as Chief, Sexual Assualt Prevention and Response Training and Research.)

Accountability and advocacy are as important in the deployed environment as they are at home station, that's why Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARC) are deployed to the combat zone. They ensure service members have the same 24-hour a day, seven-days a week support they had at home.

Lt. Col. Denise Thompson, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing SARC, said it's also her job to educate all Airmen deployed to the 332nd AEW and air expeditionary groups regarding sexual assault reporting and how to access victim support.

"My goal during my deployment is to have a cadre of trained victim advocates to provide one-on-one victim support," she said. "I also plan to provide education and training to all Air Force personnel -- military and civilian."

Less than one month into her deployment, Colonel Thompson already has three trained advocates and 14 others going through the 40 hour certification course. Upon completion of the Air Force-mandated training, those Airmen are also qualified to return to their home stations to continue volunteering as VAs.

Victim advocates assist the SARC by providing 24-hour on call response for victims, helping them understand available reporting options, initial medical care and completion of a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam.

Staff Sgt. Sasha Lewis, 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, said she volunteered to become an advocate because she wanted to reach out to those who didn't know who or where to turn.

"I am a victim advocate because I knew someone who was sexually assaulted and didn't know what to do about the situation," she said. "I remember the emotions they felt and how much worry and stress was being dealt with. It was almost as if they could not live a normal life anymore -- it haunted them so much. After this particular situation, I decided there are many people who probably did not know what to do and that I wanted to be able to respond to them as much as I could so they would be able to return to a normal life."

Sergeant Lewis said her friend inspired her to take action just as the Air Force implemented the new SARC program.

"In a sense, I felt it was a sign for me to be an advocate," she said. "So here I am today deployed to Iraq, continuing my education and gaining new experiences."

Sexual assault is defined by the Department of Defense as intentional sexual contact characterized by use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority when the victim does not or cannot consent.

Sexual assault includes rape, non consensual sodomy (oral or anal sex), indecent assault (unwanted, inappropriate sexual contact or fondling), or attempts to commit these acts, and can occur without regard to gender or spousal relationship or age of the victim.

"In October, Chapter 47, Article 120 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, was published with changes to more accurately and specifically address charges regarding sexual assault," Colonel Thompson said. "The purpose of having a standardized definition within DOD is to assist all personnel in understanding that sexual assault is criminal behavior and it involves actual behaviors or the threat of those behaviors."

There are three ways to report sexual assaults; restricted, unrestricted and independent.

"Restricted reporting allows active duty personnel to report sexual assault to a SARC, victim advocate or health care professional without initiating an investigation or notification to chain of command," said the colonel. "This way, victims are able to receive medical care and a sexual assault forensic exam in a confidential manner. A restricted report is designed to give victims support and time to decide if they are willing to have an investigation in the future."

Colonel Thompson said while there's no time limit on choosing to have an investigation, sexual assault-forensic exams are only kept for one year when conducted as a result of a restricted report.

"One point of having restricted reporting is to provide victims with the time, support and resources needed to eventually decide to go unrestricted," she said.

Victims may also choose unrestricted reporting, in which a report is made to a SARC, law enforcement or chain of command to initiate an investigation.

Moreover, law enforcement may use an independent report -- information received from a third party -- to initiate their own investigation she said.

According to the colonel, the DoD recognized having increased reporting procedures regarding sexual assaults was in the best interest of the military and the victims.

In addition to offering various ways for victims to report offenses, the SARC also plans to work with her victim advocates and Army counterparts to provide comprehensive victim and response programs across the installation.