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14th Air Force JAG serves as Special Victims' Counsel

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Capt. Leah Watson, chief of military justice in the 14th Air Force Staff Judge Advocate office, also serves an Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel. The Air Force’s SVC program provides military sexual assault survivors with a dedicated attorney to help walk them through the entire investigative and prosecutorial process. (U.S. Air Force/Courtesy Photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Capt. Leah Watson, chief of military justice in the 14th Air Force Staff Judge Advocate office, also serves an Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel. The Air Force’s SVC program provides military sexual assault survivors with a dedicated attorney to help walk them through the entire investigative and prosecutorial process. (U.S. Air Force/Courtesy Photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The Air Force Special Victims' Counsel program provides military sexual assault survivors with a dedicated attorney to help walk them through the entire investigative and prosecutorial process. The program began in its interim phase in January of 2013. Just seven months later, the Secretary of Defense directed all Services to implement special victim's advocacy programs to provide legal advice and representation to victims.

However, for one member of the 14th Air Force Staff Judge Advocate team at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., a passion for empowering victims developed long before establishment of the SVC program.

"I have been interested in victims' rights since before I joined the Air Force," said Capt. Leah Watson, 14 AF/JA chief of military justice and legacy SVC. "Prior to joining the military, I practiced family law and did a substantial amount of pro bono work representing domestic violence victims in family law matters."

Coincidentally, one of Watson's duties during her first JAG assignment was overseeing the unit's Victim Witness Assistance Program. While there, she enjoyed helping victims and witnesses understand the military justice process. It was for those same reasons she was drawn to the SVC program.

When the Air Force first announced the pilot program for SVCs, Watson immediately requested an opportunity to attend the new training. She received instruction from some of the top attorneys in the Air Force, as well as nationally renowned victim attorney, Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute and clinical professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School. Additionally, Watson attended training put on by the NCVLI at personal expense to increase her skills and understanding in this area of law.

Upon completion of the training, Watson was among the first interim SVCs in the Air Force. She received her first client Jan. 29, 2013, and continues her SVC work today as a legacy member of the program.

"Fairness in the judicial process is one of the things that attracted me to the military," said Watson. "The extensive inquiry that is required before a person can plead guilty at a court-martial is an example of how the military court process is structured to protect rights. Protecting the rights of victims is equally important for ensuring a just process."

The addition of a victim's attorney through the SVC program helps balance the interests of fairness and justice for the parties to the alleged crime and society, explained Watson.

"I enjoy empowering victims by helping them understand the process and their options," she said. "I learned from my civilian practice that each client will have different interests, and I cannot presuppose a client's goals. I view my job as analogous to a navigator helping clients identify destinations (goals) and then showing routes (options) for them to choose from."

For a sexual assault victim, legal concerns may span from help obtaining a civilian protection order to seeking a divorce from the subject in a case of domestic violence. Unlike traditional legal assistance, an SVC may also assist a victim with civil law related matters that come up in the criminal justice process.

"Much of a victim's anxiety comes from confusion about the process, their role, and what things they have a say in," said Watson. "I am here to help guide them through all of that."

Another aspect of earning a client's trust involves ensuring availability to SVC services.

"I think that accessibility reduces stress," said Watson. "I try to provide multiple options for my clients to contact me such as email, cell phone, text message and video chat."

As of Sept. 6, 2013, 458 victims have requested representation and been detailed an SVC. The Air Force JAG Corps implemented a Victim Impact Survey that sexual assault victims completed. Results showed that 92 percent of individuals indicated they are "extremely satisfied" with the advice and support SVCs provided during Article 32 hearings and courts-martial. Additionally, 97 percent would recommend other victims request an SVC.

One survey participant offered the following insight on the SVC program.

"I cannot imagine how difficult the court process would be without an SVC representative. They do a great job at keeping your privacy. I felt like I understood the entire court process a lot better and liked the fact that they can keep you updated during every step of the court process. My SVC kept in great contact with me and did everything I asked and made sure I understood what my rights were. It was great to have someone there for me, especially when I talked to the defense counsel."