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AF's top lawyer: Special Victims' Counsel supports sexual assault victims

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Air Force's top lawyer testified Mar. 13 before the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee on sexual assault in the military and ongoing efforts to combat the problem.

The Judge Advocate General, Lt. Gen. Richard C. Harding, was joined by his fellow service counterparts and the Defense Department's Acting General Counsel, Robert S. Taylor, as well as the DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office director.

The group vowed to do whatever it takes to end sexual assault in the military and a big part of that, Harding said, is supporting victims.

"We believe that if victims know there is somebody on their side as they go through this complicated process that can be very exhausting, we'll see more of them come forward," Harding said during the hearing.

Surveys conducted by Air Force officials show a large majority of victims never report sexual crimes.

"Our Special Victims' Counsel operates independent of the prosecution's chain of command; they establish attorney-client relationships and zealously advocate on their clients' behalf ... thereby protecting victims' privacy and immeasurably helping victims not feel re-victimized by having to endure (the military justice process) alone," Harding said.

Additionally, Taylor testified that the DOD is building a structure to address sexual assault in the military, and changes in the legal arena are in the works. The DOD General Counsel's Office is working with the services' Judge Advocates General and DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office "To make our judicial, investigative and support structures more efficient, effective and responsive to the rights and needs of victims, while preserving the rights of the accused," Taylor said.

In the Air Force, these changes include the creation of the Special Victims' Counsel Program.

According to officials, this program provides sexual assault victims with their own military attorney to provide them legal assistance and help navigate the criminal justice system. These lawyers are trained to handle sexual assault victims' unique needs.

"It takes a strong team to succeed in our mission to protect and defend the nation, and sexual assault undermines that," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. "It's devastating to those involved. The Special Victims' Counsel will provide victims of sexual assault with a better understanding of the criminal process from an expert who is specially qualified to represent the victim. This program embodies what the Air Force is all about -- taking care of our people."

(Courtesy of Air Force News Service and American Force Press Service)