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Naval District Washington (NDW) kicked off the month with a proclamation signing at Washington Navy Yard’s Admiral Leutze Park declaring April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) as part of ongoing sexual assault prevention and response efforts in the region.

Across the Navy and Department of Defense, this year’s SAAM theme is “Live Our Values: Step Up to Stop Sexual Assault,” with the goal of empowering commands and individuals to take responsibility for the problem by focusing on Navy values on a daily basis.

“Sexual Assault Awareness Month is really about broadening our scope and our focus in terms of having it be more about dialogues and discussions, and more collaboration,” said NSA Washington Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Liz Blanc. “So April is really about getting grassroots, getting everyone involved, and getting people engaged on this issue. Sexual assault is not just an issue that we’re going to go to our once-a-year mandatory training and not think about it again.”

Much of this year’s program focuses on letting individual commands tailor training to meet specific goals around prevention, investigation, victim advocacy, accountability, and assessment.

“It’s really about getting critical mass engaged, especially when we talk about prevention,” Blanc said, speaking of reaching the widest audience. “It’s something we have to be continually engaged with.”

Blanc leads a team of about 100 volunteer military victim advocates in the National Capital Region, who are trained and ready to help and support victims of sexual assault on a 24/7 basis. While intended for military members, SAPR reps will never turn away a civilian in need of help, but will work with civilian agencies to ensure those victims are appropriately supported.

Education and awareness are about far more than just knowing to give someone a phone number, Blanc said, but rather about how to sensitively respond to victims and to recognize red flags in situations where warning signs are often hard to spot, such as subtle aggressive behavior that mimics normal social interaction.

Since many incidents happen late at night and off installations, peers are often the people in place able to immediately make a difference and prevent crimes from happening before they occur, which is why SAAM efforts this year are focusing much attention on bystander intervention.

Some ways for people to step in include directly engaging the people involved, creating a diversion, or getting a group of friends involved to separate people who might be in a risky situation, Blanc said. “It’s really about giving people tools in their toolbox, because one approach isn’t going to necessarily always work,” she said.

That intervention is not only aimed at protecting potential victims from being assaulted, but also about protecting people who may not be making wise decisions because of alcohol of other factors and may be about to commit a crime, Blanc explained.

“Bystander intervention is really about protecting everybody and it’s not about placing blame, necessarily,” she said. “It’s really about separating folks and de-escalating a situation. If you see something, do something.”

Since that ‘something’ may be ambiguous, advocates and commands are encouraging Sailors to take part in SAAM and learn how to recognize dangerous situations and how to respond appropriately.

Beyond classes and training, changing underlying culture becomes the real challenge to running an effective prevention campaign, Blanc said, especially since sexual assault is such a problem in society as a whole.

“People change when they want to change and when they feel motivated to change,” said Blanc. “We have to make sure people connect this issue of sexual assault as something important to them because it’s important to people they care about. Think about how that assault affected that person that you care about. Now imagine that you can be someone to prevent that from happening to someone else. That’s how you get that culture change.”

Despite sexual assault still being an alarming problem, Blanc said she has seen overall awareness increase since she became a response coordinator in 2006. More victims are also coming forward, which is encouraging, she added.

Response coordinators and advocates provide emotional support, information and resources to victims to link them with appropriate services, but do not step directly into advising on legal matters, such as whether to file a restricted or unrestricted report.

For such matters, one resource available is the Victims’ Legal Counsel (VLC), which offers sexual assault victims an advocate in the legal system to argue on their behalf or simply ensure that victims’ best interests are represented during the adjudication process.

Although the inherent nature of the litigation process is a challenging process that can put individuals under intense scrutiny, Blanc urges people to step forward and report incidents. “Victims do not have to go through it alone, and there are people there who will help them and are there to support.”

One way Blanc hopes the message gets out is by having everyone who takes part in the awareness month to challenge themselves to do one thing differently as a result of training, and then carry that on throughout the rest of the year and forward.

Blanc argues that commands where fraternization and harassment are unchecked turn into permissive environments for more serious crimes to occur, so maintaining accountability for offenses of all levels is key to changing behavior and ending sexual crimes.

For listings of SAAM-related events and activities in NDW, visit www.facebook.com/NavDistWash.

For help or support, call the NDW SAPR hotline at 202-258-6717, or the DOD Safe helpline at 877-995-5247. You can also confidentially live chat with a representative at www.safehelpline.org.