JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
Sexual assault remains in the spotlight as more and more victims speak out, both in the military and throughout society.
Yet reporting an assault remains a difficult road; a stigma still exists in our culture. People still ask “why did you let this happen?” or “why didn’t you scream and run away?”
Congress and the Department of Defense have taken significant steps to address the complexities of sexual assault, especially in the legal world. Since 2012, Congress has overhauled Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, which addresses sexual assault and added new provisions, such as Article 117a, which targets revenge pornography in light of the “Marines United” scandal.
The Air Force Legal Operations Agency, or AFLOA, was previously known as the Air Force Legal Services Center, and has been in existence since 1978. AFLOA operates as a field operating agency, with leadership independent from base legal offices. This structure allows the Area Defense Counsel, or ADC, the Office of Airman’s Counsel, Special Victims’ Counsel, and other missions to operate with independence from base-level authorities.
The Special Victims’ Counsel program is an innovation which began with the Air Force and grew to encompass all services, providing legal representation for victims of sexual assault.
The Air Force SVC program has its origins in legal assistance services provided by base legal offices. This started in 1985 when Congress provided statutory authorization for the Judge Advocate General attorneys, or JAGs, to provide legal assistance to individual clients.
In 2012, Congress further expanded this in response to the widely publicized incidents of sexual assault in the military; JAGs were directed to provide legal assistance to victims. The Office of the Secretary of Defense General Counsel, or OSD/GC, provided a legal opinion on the matter and clarified that JAGs are able to provide legal assistance to sexual assault victims in the criminal context. This included attending interviews or communicating with the government, defense, or military law enforcement.
Based on this memo, the Air Force created the SVC program in January 2013, initially with the base legal offices as an additional duty for JAGs. By June 2013, the program took off and moved out of the base legal office, operating under AFLOA with operations and structure similar to that of the ADC.
The program started with 24 SVCs and 10 Special Victims’ Paralegals, or SVPs, in two regional and satellite offices. By Aug. 14, 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel released a memo that required the secretaries of all military departments to establish a fully operational special victims’ advocacy program by Jan. 1, 2014, and for each service to identify and share best practices. Congress also established the statutory authority for the SVC program at about the same time with the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
Each service has implemented the victims’ counsel programs with variations. For example, Army SVCs fall under the Chief of Legal Assistance which reports to the Staff Judge Advocate, or SJA.
The Navy and Marine Corps Victims’ Legal Counsel, or VLC, on the other hand, fall under a separate command outside of the base legal offices, much like the Air Force. However, Marine VLCs represent victims of crimes other than sexual assault.
Regardless of which service the subject of the investigation is from, the victim requesting an SVC will generally receive an SVC from his or her service. Consequently, Air Force SVCs may be involved in Navy, Army, Marine Corps or Coast Guard cases, and vice versa. Regardless of the victim’s or the counsel’s branch of service, the person accused of a crime will be tried in their own service’s court.
The Air Force SVC program has been expanding to meet the needs of clients. Currently, there are 54 SVCs and 44 SVPs operating at 48 installations around the globe. All active duty Airmen are eligible to receive SVC services, regardless of perpetrator’s status.
If the perpetrator is active duty military, adult and minor dependents and Department of Defense civilians are also eligible. Under certain circumstances, Reserve and Guard Airmen may be eligible as well. There are exceptions to policy that can broaden eligibility on a case-by-case basis. For more information on eligibility, contact your local SVC team or the legal office.
The SVC mission is to provide support to victims of sexual assault through independent representation; build and sustain victim resiliency; empower victims; and increase the level of legal assistance provided to victims.
SVCs provide the proper channel to support victims through advocacy, whether it be at a court-martial or to a commander. Lastly, SVCs give voice to victims by making sure their choices are heard by leadership, investigating bodies, and the legal office. Preserving and protecting that voice and choice remains the key SVC duty.
The first two SVCs and SVP at JBSA were stationed at JBSA-Lackland. In March 2016, the SVC program expanded to add a team at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston to meet the growing demand for SVCs. This allows potential clients in technical schools to walk over to their office and request SVC services. This also lessens the need of clients to use other avenues, such as speaking to first sergeants, supervisors, colleagues, and thus, mitigates the risk of unwanted disclosure by inadvertently speaking to a mandatory reporter.
The expansion also allows more face-to-face contact between the SVC team and their clients, as travel between bases can prove challenging for technical school students.
There are two JBSA SVC offices. At JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, the office is located at 3555 Patch Road, building R212, rooms 2 and 8, co-located with the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response/Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention office, across from the Central Post Gym and Shoppette. The JBSA-Fort Sam Houston office also provides support for JBSA-Randolph.
At JBSA-Lackland, visit 1880 Carswell Blvd., room 223. The Area Defense Counsel’s office is located on the third floor, while SVC and SAPR offices are on the second floor of the same building.
For more information on the SVC program, call 210-221-3796. People can also visit http://www.jbsa.mil/Mission-Partners/Special-Victims-Counsel/ and http://www.jbsa.mil/Resources/Sexual-Assault-Prevention-and-Response/ for more information.