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The Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) responsible for Naval Support Activity South Potomac (NSASP) has a message for anyone experiencing the trauma of sexual violence: don't suffer alone. April is National Sexual Assault Awareness month and Gloria Arteaga, who came to the region in August, 2011, is getting the word out about how the Navy protects Sailors, their families and employees.

At a Jan. 18 press conference, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said there were 3,191 sexual assaults involving service members reported across the Department of Defense (DoD) in 2011, 33 more incidences than were reported in 2010. Many cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact, however, go unreported; Panetta expected the real number of incidences to be closer to 19,000.

Experts attribute the disparity between reported and estimated cases to fear among victims that reporting sexual abuse may result in retaliation and the desire of some commanders to not "rock the boat." In response, DoD has refined the process for reporting and responding to sexual abuse. "We want to make sure [victims] feel comfortable and safe," said Arteaga, "but not everybody understands how the process works."

Arteaga trains Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) command liaisons, points of contact, data collectors and a rotating "watch bill" of SAPR Victim Advocates (VA) to collect and respond to reports of sexual abuse onboard NSASP. There are two pathways for victims of unwanted sexual contact to report abuse, restricted and unrestricted. Both options are intended to protect the rights of victims.

Restricted reporting is an option for active duty service members, reservists and members of the Coast Guard, though this option may be extended to include others in the near future. It allows victims to confidentially receive advocacy, medical treatment, counseling and time to consider all their options. Sexual assaults can be reported to SAPR VAs, SARCs, health care professionals (including Fleet and Family Support Counselors) and chaplains. If abuse is reported to any other entity, confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. The upside to restricted reporting is that victims can receive treatment and learn all of their options free from the pressure of legal proceedings and command politics; the downside is that the perpetrator of the sexual assault will remain at large, Military Protective Orders (MPOs) and reassignments are not an option, and evidence of the crime may be lost. Victims who make a restricted report may, once they have decided on a course of action, change the report to unrestricted.

Unrestricted reporting is available for service members, civilians, military retirees and dependents age 18 or older. This type of reporting can be initiated by contacting SAPR VAs, SARCs, law enforcement, health care professionals or one's chain of command. Law enforcement will investigate the allegation and may issue MPOs; command must take measures to protect the victim's safety and separate victims from alleged perpetrators. Unrestricted reporting facilitates a greater number of protections for victims, but legal proceedings take time and the investigation itself may feel intrusive in the wake of a traumatic sexual assault.

For service member victims concerned about the making a report, Arteaga offered advice. "It's up to victims to weigh their options," she said. "When in doubt, call the watch bill and keep it anonymous. We are there for the best interests of the person calling and we respect their wishes. Go restricted and get help, get advocacy."

Arteaga, a native of Colombia who served onboard Naval Station Newport, R.I. before moving to this region, is passionate about advocating for all victims of sexual assault. Those victims do not necessarily fit into pre-conceived notions of gender. Male-on-male rape, for instance, is an extremely sensitive topic in the military, but it can and does occur. "Many [male victims] do not come forward because they feel it is degrading," she said. "It can be devastating and it can be heartbreaking and often, drugs or alcohol are involved as the weapon of choice of the alleged offender."

While many instances of sexual assault are clear cut instances of perpetrators forcing their will onto victims, others are more subtle. Unwanted "pranks" of a sexual nature also fit the bill of unwanted sexual contact and perpetrators may be punished accordingly. Often times, these "pranks" involve offensive and degrading photos of victims, who may be sleeping or intoxicated. "These 'pranks' have no place in the military," said Arteaga. "[Perpetrators] who would do this to someone else don't deserve to wear the uniform."

Would-be perpetrators of such acts aren't the only ones bearing responsibility for this type of crime; witnesses, too, must prevent, stop and report all instances of sexual abuse. "It's everyone's duty to stop the perpetrator of a sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact," said Arteaga.

Arteaga's rationale, like Secretary Panetta's, goes beyond simple decency and protecting individual rights: preventing sexual assault in the military is a matter of national security. "Service members live in a world where they must work to protect each other," she said. "You never know when you are going to need your back covered by another service member. Do you think we are going to be able to rely on one another in an environment where we don't respect each other?"

If you are a victim of sexual assault, witnessed a sexual assault, or are a leader who thinks a sexual assault may have occurred within your organization, don't suffer alone: call the SAPR VA 24-hour response hotline at (540) 424-0660.