7/22/2010 - KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Trained victim advocates from Keesler's sexual assault prevention and response office provide a vital link to support, give direction and assist victims in regaining control of their lives.
VAs are active-duty or civilian volunteers armed with essential information, processes and resources to assist survivors of sexual assault. They remain by the survivor's side as long as they're needed.
Michelle Lind, Keesler's sexual assault response coordinator, said victim advocates receive 40 hours of intense training to prepare them for their duties. Background checks are done to ensure that these volunteers are the right people for the job.
When a sexual assault occurs, Airmen have two reporting options -- restricted and unrestricted.
Restricted reporting allows a sexual assault victim to confidentially disclose the details of his or her assault to specified individuals and receive medical treatment and counseling, without triggering the official investigative process.
Unrestricted reporting is recommended for sexual assault victims who want medical treatment, counseling and an official crime investigation.
The first step in either case, once the sexual assault response coordinator is notified of a reported sexual assault, is to immediately assign a victim advocate to the case. The victim advocate assists the survivor in making a determination about whether or not to receive a sexual assault forensic examination, as well as the pros and cons of making either a restricted or unrestricted report.
Currently, Keesler has 65 VAs, all with different reasons for participating in the program.
Two of the victim advocates, Staff Sgts. Tiffany Thompson and Jacqueline Pena, are air traffic control instructors in the 335th Training Squadron.
Sergeant Thompson, who arrived at Keesler almost three years ago, had been sexually assaulted. She credits the SAPRO at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., for playing a major role in her recovery. She became a VA four years ago.
"VAs need to be caring, compassionate and have thick skin," said Sergeant Thompson. "Going with survivors to appointments and hearing their stories isn't always easy and you hurt right along with them, but you have to separate the hurt they're going through from your own personal life.
"In a sense, all victim advocates are like guardian angels for those survivors, protecting them as much as possible while helping them to see the light at the end of the tunnel," she remarked.
"Our responsibilities include not only taking the on-call phone and being able to assist if a case comes up, but working behind the scenes, helping with training, collecting donations to help the Gulf Coast Women's Center for Nonviolence, setting up educational displays, talking to friends and coworkers about what we do as VA's and supporting the staff," she noted.
Sergeant Thompson's experience as a VA has changed her in several ways.
"I feel like I've become a better person and a worse person at the same time," she explained. "Being able to touch the lives of the survivors who need assistance and support is surreal, but sometimes hearing the stories makes you jaded and angry -- never angry at the survivor, but angry at the situation and the fact that sexual assaults are so preventable, but are still so prevalent."
Sergeant Pena became a victim advocate while stationed at Columbus AFB, Miss. She's been at Keesler since October 2007.
"I honestly don't know what prompted me to become a VA," Sergeant Pena admitted. "I felt like I could make a difference in these people's lives. It takes a very special kind of person to be able to emotionally separate yourself from the situation you're in with the victim and be there for them wholeheartedly and support them in any way possible."
Sergeant Pena is pursuing a degree in criminal justice, and her college courses have helped her serve her survivors better by helping them to know what to expect and to better navigate the legal system.
"Sadly, I've gotten many calls to assist," she pointed out. "As VAs, we take the on-call phone from Tuesday to Tuesday, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We make ourselves available day and night to anyone who needs assistance.
"I've received calls at all hours of the night, and I am always happy to be the person the victim needs to help them through this process," Sergeant Pena continued. "I've become friends with a lot of the people I help and it makes me feel great that I have made a difference in their lives. I still talk to some of my victims from three years ago, and it's great. I see them go from a complete bottoming-out to happy men and women who are thankful I was there when they were at their worst. This is all the reward I need as a VA."
Master Sgt. Tiaj Harris, who's been the unit deployment manager for the 81st Logistics Readiness Squadron for almost a year, sees his role as a VA as "sort of a 'big brother' that can listen to others. Giving our time and commitment to helping someone in need is truly a selfless act of human compassion."
He was motivated to become a VA after hearing a briefing by Capt. Tresa Strickland while he was stationed at Osan Air Base, South Korea.
"She made it quite clear that sexual assault was not just a male assaulting a female, but could also male on male," said Sergeant Harris. "My initial thought was, 'Really -- a male getting assaulted.' Then it really hit home when she stated that it's quite possible for someone to slip a drug into your drink whether you are male or female -- everyone is susceptible."
When he arrived at Keesler, he interviewed with Christine McGill and Barry Newman, sexual assault prevention and response program technicians. He completed his training in November.
"We have a great group of SAPR program technicians and victim advocates at Keesler," Sergeant Harris commented. "As a VA, my main focus is to assist and get the help that's needed for sexual assault survivors. I'm not a knowledge expert, but I can guide them to the agencies on base as well as in the local community.
"It's important not to be judgmental -- no matter what happened to that individual, a crime was committed and a VA should give all the support that's needed at a crucial time," he added. "My experiences so far as a VA are bittersweet. I enjoy helping people, but because of the nature of helping them you want to sympathize and get them as much help as possible."
Tammy Jegel has worked in the 81st Medical Support Squadron clinic research laboratory's veterinary sciences section for the past 14 months.
A victim advocate since November, she's able to relate to the people in her care because of the abuse she experienced in her first marriage for more than 10 years. She's now married to Tech. Sgt. Mark Jegel, an instructor at the Mathies NCO Academy.
"I had been through a whole lot, but Mark was strong, sensitive, caring, encouraging and there for me," she remembered. "I told myself if I ever got over the issues from the past, I wanted to be just like him and be there for people that need someone to just listen and not judge them for what had happened to them. I guess you could say he is my hero."
Mrs. Jegel said it's very rewarding to see victims becoming stronger because someone has taken the time to listen and really care about what has happened to them.
"I feel very strongly that everyone needs to understand the importance of the victim advocate program," Mrs. Jegel stressed. "When we get a call, time is the most important issue. The advocate should only have to focus on how to help the victim and that takes support and understanding from everyone. You never know -- it could be their wife, daughter, son or husband that may need us one day, and they'll expect us to be there as fast as we can."