EXCLUSIVE: Inside look at Navy Region Hawaii sex assault prevention program

EXCLUSIVE: Inside look at Navy Region Hawaii sex assault prevention program

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Military officials say, on average, 20 new victim advocates are trained at Navy Region Hawai'i each month as part of the Navy's ongoing efforts to combat sexual harassment, sexual assault and reprisal.  This Friday another round of volunteers, both civilians and service members, will be certified after completing their initial 40 hours of training.

The number of reported sexual assaults within Navy Region Hawai'i is up by nearly 18% over last year.  According to officials, 31 incidents were reported in 2012 compared to 37 in 2013.  Military officials attribute the increase to an improved environment in which more victims feel comfortable coming forward, which they say is crucial step to ending sexual violence.

Officials credit the Victims Legal Counsel program, which is congressionally mandated in each branch of service, as a major factor in increased reporting.

"We changed the playing field in that we give them the opportunity to want to go forward," said  Commander Kerry Abramson, the officer in charge of the Victims Legal Counsel Program Pacific, which covers Hawai'i, Guam, Japan and Korea.

"We act to empower the victim by giving the victim the opportunity to make choices in their career and in the military justice process," explained Commander Abramson.

The program rolled out six months ago nationwide.  All service members or family members of active duty service members who have been the victims of sexual assault are eligible for assistance through the program, which assigns a military lawyer to guide them through the reporting process and offer them a certain level of protection.

"We have the ability to combat any potential situations where there may be retribution.  We have the ability to assist in getting them an expedited transfer, if they think that staying with the command is injurious either to their career or their mental health or well-being and so we take them out of a bad position sometimes.  We ensure that there are military protective orders if you have a perpetrator either in the same command or on the same base to ensure that those people don't come into contact with one another to alleviate the potential of a future altercation," described Abramson.

The counselors also play a crucial role in preparing victims for trial should their case go to the court martial.

"They understand the questions that are going to be asked.  They're confident in the answers that are going to be given and are prepared for the often very difficult cross examination by a criminal defense council," Abramson said.

According to the Pentagon, less than 10% of reported sexual assault cases military-wide go to trial -- and even fewer result in convictions. According to the Department of Defense, 5,061 sexual assault cases were reported in 2013, 484 went to trial, and 376 resulted in convictions.

"Ultimately getting better results at the court martial I think would act to deter the public and so we're working -- the Victim Legal Counsel Program is a step in the right direction -- to try to get better results at trial by coming in early and working closely with law enforcement, victims advocates, the prosecutors and getting everybody on the same page with an eye towards a successful investigation and a successful prosecution," Abramson said.

There are 29 Victim Legal Counsels in the Pacific.  Officials say they work closely with Victim Advocates, who help connect individuals with medical care and counseling services.

"The Navy is taking care of its people.  We're doing everything we can to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment through education, prevention training and accountability," said Commander Jeanie Blackenship, the Navy Region Hawai'i Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Officer.

Service members are assigned, trained and certified as sexual assault response and prevention (SAPR) counselors; civilian employees are provided professional referrals and access to equal employment opportunity counselors.

The Navy also has a "Step Up & Step In" bystander intervention campaign.

"It allows sailors to understand the importance of helping their shipmate.  If they see somebody that might be in a bad spot -- step up, step in and prevent sexual assault," said Commander Blankenship.

"The message is getting out there.  People are learning.  The Navy has made great strides in its sexual assault prevention programs and people are very aware now what is and what is not acceptable and what will not be tolerated," Blankenship said.

Everyone is required to complete annual sexual harassment prevention training.  Last year, Navy Region Hawai'i also participated in a Navy-wide SAPR stand-down, in which every service member and civilian received mandatory training.

"Sexual assault and harassment are issues that negatively impact the entire mission readiness for the entire Navy workforce -- civilian and military -- my job is to eliminate sexual misconduct through education, prevention training, accountability and victim support," said Blankenship.

Lawmakers have pushed to reform the way the military handles its sex assault and sex harassment investigations.  Recent legislation aiming to take decision-making authority out of hands of the military chain of command has stalled in the Senate.

Commander Abramson admits there is a long way to go to end military sexual violence, but says he believes the system works and is fair.

"To get the Navy at large or the community at large to not perpetrate these crimes is if we see better results at trial or at court martial -- where the accused is actually held criminally responsible and liable for the crimes they committed.  I don't think the results at a court martial are a function of the fact that the process wasn't fair.  I believe that often the evidence that you have in cases like this make it very difficult for the finders of fact -- either the judge or a jury -- to find the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  These crimes often happen where no one else is watching.  They happen in a barracks room.  They happen in a hotel room where ultimately you're just left with two versions -- the victims and the perpetrators," explained Abramson.  "With just that information it makes it very difficult for a jury, who weighs these things very carefully to find somebody guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- knowing full well that the impact this will have on their career, their families, and their lives."

Abramson says he does not agree with the description that military sex trauma is an "epidemic".

"I don't think the incidents of sexual assault is any greater in the United States military as it is in the community at large.  I think that maybe the eyes are on us a little deeper than they would be otherwise.  They have this expectation, and rightly so, that people in uniform should do it better than their civilian counterparts and so I think we are held to a higher standard -- a higher standard that I wish to attain -- but I don't think that our numbers are any different," Commander Abramson said.

Abramson says the Victims Legal Counsel program has been instrumental in getting more victims to come forward and believes that is ultimately the first step in ending sexual violence.

"Sexual assault is traumatic for the victims.  I think the Navy is doing everything we can -- first of all, to be proactive and preventing incidents of sexual assault on our Navy bases and amongst military members -- but also we have a broad array of resources to provide to the victims to help them through it and help them thrive after it," Abramson said.  "I think the Navy has done it right with the Victim Legal Counsel Program.  It's a long time in the coming.  It was necessary and now that it's here, I believe it's here to stay and rightfully so."

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