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New program aims to help victims of sexual assault at Vandenberg

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A pilot program got its wings and will now be a permanent fixture at Vandenberg as of Aug. 5.

The Air Force created the Special Victim's Council as a pilot program to help aide victims of sexual assault through the legal process and in turn increase reporting of assaults and victim cooperation throughout the process.

The program, staffed by Air Force lawyers, began in January with 60 part-time SVCs but became a full-time institution in May.

The Department of Defense estimates that there were 26,000 instances of sexual assault in the military in 2012. Of those cases, only 3,374 were reported, and only 306 were prosecuted across all armed services.

The Air Force sees SVC as an innovative step that will provide victims with both support and resources. Special Victims Council attorneys can help victims make both unrestricted and restricted reports and they can also be contacted after a report has been made through another entity.

"The Special Victims Council program actually comes from the legal assistance regulation AFI and really the purpose of the program is to do three things: provide advice to victims, provide advocacy, and empower victims by removing barriers that we normally hear about," said Capt. Meghan McCauley, Vandenberg SVC. "We do our best to ensure that victims are represented adequately. My job is to let the legal office know what my clients' interest is. So if my client would prefer not to participate in the legal military justice process my job is to advise the legal office that that is the intent and request of the client."

The Air Force is not alone in the fight against sexual assault. On 15 Aug, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a policy change that requires all armed services to assign legal representatives to sexual assault victims, as the SVC program does. Additionally, victims will be able to give sentencing input and the inspector general will be required to review sexual assault investigations regularly to ensure that commanders are not wielding undue influence over which sexual assault cases are prosecuted.

The SVC operates as a Direct Reporting Unit, thereby avoiding influence by commanders in the handling of sexual assault cases.

"My boss [U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dawn Hawkins, head of SVC] works out of the legal operations agency in DC, so I am actually not connected to the legal office here at Vandenberg and the reason why we do that is because my job is to represent the victim and my client, said McCauley. "It is not to represent the Air Force or the government, which is what trial councils job is or to represent the accused which comes out of the Area Defense Council."

A list of Special Victims' Counsel Offices and Contact information can be found at www.afjag.af.mil.