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Military sexual assault advocates are commending the Air Force for taking the lead in victim advocacy, with some calling for the new model to be adopted by all services.
The Air Force, in late December, announced it is setting up a Special Victims' Counsel Pilot Program, in which the service will provide attorneys to sexual assault victims who request legal counsel. The program begins this month, with 60 judge advocates general to make up the first group of counsel for assault victims. The pilot program will run for one year.
The program was formed in response to requirements in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that requires the availability of legal services to victims of sexual assault. The service was the first branch to launch a new program, which goes beyond what is required in the law, advocates said.
"We were pleased to hear that the Air Force leadership agrees that providing victims of sexual assault access to legal counsel is a critical step in the process of creating an environment that encourages victims to report sexual assaults and holds criminals responsible," Reps. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., co-chairs of the Congressional Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus wrote in a Jan. 15 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
On Jan. 14, Air Education and Training Command announced the program will expand to basic military trainees and technical training students who have been involved in unprofessional relationships.
"In addition to the covered sexual assault offenses, entry-level airmen who have been involved in an unprofessional relationship of a physical and sexual nature with instructors or staff from basic military training or technical school will also be entitled to SVC services," said Lt. Col. Andrea R-Ferrulli, Air Education and Training Command Judge Advocate officer, in a release.
The announcements came after a high-profile scandal involving more than two dozen Air Force military training instructors at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, have been accused of sexual conduct and improper relationships with trainees. Six trainees have been convicted, with about a half dozen others still being investigated for misconduct charges.
In the letter, the lawmakers request the Defense Department update Congress on steps the other services are taking to follow suit. And the Air Force example should be the basis across all branches, said Greg Jacob, the policy director for the Service Women's Action Network.
"We hope others adopt this program," he said. "If executed the way it's proposed and the way it's written, I think it will change how the military handles sexual assault cases."
In the Air Force example, an attorney will be available to not only help a plaintiff through the trial process, but also through collateral issues that may arise through the process. It is also independent of the chain of command, with a victim's advocate providing all the legal assistance.
The Army has already set up a special investigation unit that trains prosecutors with how to handle investigations and evidence in sexual assault cases, but no other branch has a system focused on victim assistance in the same way as the Air Force, Jacob said.