The Army on Tuesday opened a first-for-the-military sexual assault response center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that brings together law enforcement, medical support and victims advocates in a single space.
It’s intended to mirror successful civilian programs that help sexual assault victims find care and legal resources in one place, which can reduce the number of times they have to relive traumatic events for authorities to receive justice or assistance.
“This is a place where they can feel safe,” said Army attorney Lt. Col. Rob Stelle. He’s the base’s sexual assault response team director.
The center takes aim at a rise in military sexual assaults that has given the service a black eye in recent years. The Defense Department in May released a report that showed rise in known sexual assault cases from 3,192 cases in 2011 to 3,374 cases in 2012. The same report suggested that as many 26,000 military service members faced unwanted sexual contact but might not have reported it.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the nation’s capital have been considering legislation that would compel the military to take additional steps to curb sexual assault. One proposal from New York Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand would remove the military chain of command from the prosecution of sex assault crimes.
Army officers have responded to those concerns by taking a tough line against sexual harassment.
“The problem of sexual assault can only be solved by destroying the environment that allows the perpetrators to thrive,” said Lewis-McChord senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, who freed up resources to launch the sex assault response center.
He defended the chain of command in remarks at the center’s opening ceremony.
“Commanders in the military must be responsible for the discipline in their unit,” he said. “If there’s a problem and I can’t solve, it fire me. A prosecutor couldn’t pull this (sexual assault response center) together, but a commander can.”
Lewis-McChord has several avenues for victims of sexual assault to get help. They can call a 24-hour hotline, appeal to trained victims advocates in their units or go up the chain of command to the 7th Infantry Division or the I Corps.
In each case, the victim can choose to file a complaint seeking a prosecution of an attacker, or they can select a restricted report that lets them get help without identifying a suspect.
“What we really want is all victims who want help to get help,” Stelle said.
Prior to its opening, a victim could raise a concern to someone in his or her unit, then speak to criminal investigators, recount the incident again to doctors and once more to counselors. Later, a prosecutor would get involved.
Each of those services was located in different places.
“We’d just drag each other all over the post,” said victims advocate Patty McGill. She’s a civilian employee who helped Stelle develop the center based on her past work in Tacoma and in Mason County.
Having the center bring the services together in one place is “a huge difference” for victims, McGill said. “It’s innovative for the Army.”