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New military program to protect victims sees early success

As reforms passed late last year slowly start rolling out, one program's early success could help lead the fight against sexual assault.
Tina Wilson, who was a victim of sexual assault while serving in the Navy, outside of her brothers home in Del City, OK.
Tina Wilson, who was a victim of sexual assault while serving in the Navy, outside of her brothers home in Del City, OK.

The Pentagon's efforts to curb sexual assault in the military have been under a spotlight since the Department of Defense released a scathing report on the issue last year. While the slow pace of change has made it difficult to see progress, both advocates for survivors of military sexual assault and military leaders can point to the Special Victims Counsel program as a reason for cautious optimism.

Launched as an Air Force pilot program in early 2013, the Special Victims Counsel (SVC) program has trained more than 180 lawyers to help survivors navigate everything from reporting crimes and writing letters to parole boards, to any potential legal proceedings.

The program has since expanded to all branches of the military at the order of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and in a show of speed and efficiency rarely seen from the Pentagon on sexual assault, the SVC was operational on Nov. 1, 2013, nearly eight months before the start date mandated by the 2014 defense authorization bill.

Special Victims Counsel candidates are chosen and go through a one week training, held twice a year.

This support is desperately needed. A report released last year estimated that of the 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact in the military in the 2012 fiscal year, only 3,374 were reported, and of those, only 302 went to trial. Those numbers spurred an outcry and led Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, to push through an unprecedented slate of reforms last year. Victims cited lack of confidence in the system and a fear of retaliation as reasons for not reporting abuse. Thirty-six sections of the latest National Defense Authorization Act deal with sexual assault and will take effect over the next year. For example, commanders can no longer unilaterally overturn a jury conviction, and retaliation against victims is now a crime. With the SVC program already up and running, its successes and failures will be closely watched.

The model provided by the Air Force left few excuses for the rest of the military to move slowly. "That’s been helpful, because the DoD bought in really early on and they’ve worked to make it happen. Legal experts in the military have seen this as a big step forward, and they’re working hard to make it happen even if there are obstacles,” Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network, told msnbc. ”I think we’re going to see this program grow and expand and what the AF has seen can be translated.”

With each branch of the military able to craft its own specific rules, there are still challenges and concerns to be addressed. “It’d be like if the DoD says to make a pasta dinner, and the Air Force makes spaghetti, the Army makes lasagna, and the Navy makes mac and cheese,” Jacob said. This means that each branch has different specific training requirements and measures success differently.

One encouraging sign for the future of the program is the level of involvement survivor advocacy groups have had since the beginning. Jacob spoke to students at one of the SVC training sessions, and told msnbc that other speakers included civilian victims’ rights advocates and even scientists with expertise in trauma.

“It’s not just military lawyers lecturing military lawyers,” Jacob said. For SVCs in training who might want to become trial attorneys after leaving the service, “they’re actually becoming good lawyers in terms of victims’ rights. This gives them skills they’re going to need.”

Miranda Peterson, policy and program director of Protect Our Defenders, also sees progress. But she says she has heard from SVCs -- as the lawyers in the program are referred to -- that there has been resistance to including them in the process. “We definitely support the program all the way and recognize there’s a lot of potential there,” she told msnbc.

Of course, improving the way survivors navigate the aftermath of being assaulted is only one part of reducing the number of sexual assaults. Until the military climate as a whole changes, SVCs could face a backlash from commanders and prosecutors.

“There’s definitely been some pushback on them. They’re seen as troublemakers,” Peterson said. Protect Our Defenders had heard reports from SVCs of being excluded from hearings and being denied access to crucial information. If the role is not respected, victims still have to deal with a hostile system. "Everyone agrees that this is needed for victims, and it's a great program when it works. Sometimes it does work, but not if you're denying SVCs the materials and resources they need to do their job," Peterson said.

As the outcomes of two high-profile sexual assault courts martial, the cultural problem is still enormous. According to a report by the Associated Press, a letter sent by the SVC for the alleged victim in the court martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair was cited by the judge as proof that the case’s commander had been inappropriately influenced by outside factors. The letter pointed out that a plea deal that would have dropped all sexual assault charges against Sinclair would hurt the Army’s work to curb sexual assault.

Sinclair pleaded guilty to several lesser offenses and received a $20,000 fine and a reprimand. He had faced possible life in prison on the most serious charges. He may still be allowed to retire at his current rank and receive his full military pension.

In the court martial of a Naval Academy football player, a military judge found him not guilty of charges he raped a female midshipmen at a party in 2012. The multi-day cross-examination of the alleged victim in that case included intrusive questions and attacks on her credibility because she drank alcohol at the party. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, led an effort to completely overhaul the hearing process that permitted such questioning. That change will go into effect later this year.

With the Pentagon's annual report on sexual assault set for release in the next few weeks, there will be another chance to examine what is working and what is still broken when it comes to protecting men and women from sexual assault while they serve their country. The successes of the SVC program are only one small part of a movement to change military culture at large, but Peterson thinks that the men and women going through SVC training are excited to join that movement. “We’re seeing challenges, but they’re not insurmountable challenges, and [the program] offers the chance to make a tangible difference in people’s lives,” she said.