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Vandenberg Victims' Advocates create 'safe zone'

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Imagine a courtroom filled with people awaiting a judge to declare a verdict on a case. The accused not only testifies, but also provides the judge with 100 glowing character references, yet the victim is allowed to provide nothing but their own testimony.

Whose statement will be more impactful?

According to Vandenberg's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Donna Rathbun, the Victims' Advocate program here is resolved to be just that - a voice for those who feel powerless.

"Even though I try to make myself very approachable and available to Team V for assistance, I realize that a victim may be more comfortable confiding in someone they view as a peer," Rathbun said. "I use the analogy of the courtroom scenario because that's often times how a victim feels: 'Nobody understands what I'm going through and nobody cares.' The VAs are just that - Airmen and Department of Defense civilians of varying ranks who are trained in victimology and know what resources can be provided to a victim. They are emissaries in individual units who are the most likely to be the first non-official SARC representative victims go to."

Not anyone can be a VA, there are exclusions and a screening process.

"Anyone in the military can be a VA except those on g-series orders, chief master sergeants, Office Of Special Investigations personnel, security forces, judge advocate personnel, chapel personnel, and medical group personnel," Rathbun said. "The prospective VA must then submit paperwork asking to be a VA that has been endorsed by their commander, complete a background check and a 40-hour training session with the SAPR office. After all of that has been accomplished, the prospective VA must submit paperwork to become certified through the National Organization for Victim Assistance and the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program."

After those steps are completed, a VA is certified and can be matched with a victim to provide assistance.

"The Match-up is very important," Rathbun said. "I make sure to take the whole-person concept into consideration and match a VA with a victim who has similar experiences and interests."

Though the VA is certified to help, that doesn't mean they have to - they're still asked if they'd like to work with a victim.

"After I've identified the best matched VA for the victim, I call the VA and give them a very non-specific review of the case and victim," Rathbun said. "Maybe the VA is in the middle of a college course or getting ready to go on a family vacation and wouldn't have the time to devote to someone who needs them outside of their home responsibilities. We understand that and can come up with a game plan to make it work or I can find a different VA."

Though the responsibilities can be heavy, most VAs find the job to be very gratifying.

"I am a VA for the sake of helping other Airmen," said Capt. Katie Fabbri, a Vandenberg VA and the alternate SARC. "Since we're Airmen on the installation, we're a familiar face that victims can turn to when they need help. The VA is someone who isn't going to pass judgment on the victim, who knows what resources are available to help and, most of all, is a 'safe zone' for the victim."

Fabbri believes that creating a 'safe zone' can be the most important part of the VAs responsibilities.

"One of the biggest struggles for victims is that they don't have a confidant during a time that they feel that the world is against them," Fabbri said. "The VA is a way for the victim to 'check the pulse' on how others may perceive their issue. The VA can also provide answers and resources to help that person move through the healing processes."

As an extension of the base SARC, the VAs are the first-line warriors to ensure the victims' voices are heard.

"Victims are people too and you're not just a victim," Fabbri said. "Yes, this horrible thing happened to you, but it does not define you. That's the balance a VA tries to create for a victim."

For more information on becoming a VA, call the Vandenberg SAPR office at 606-SARC (7272).