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Volunteer advocates encourage sexual assault victims to become survivors

By Lori A. Bultman | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | Feb. 13, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that no one should ever have to fall victim to, but when it does occur, it is important that victims have the support and services they need to transition from victim to survivor.

One of the readily available support options for victims of sexual assault at Joint Base San Antonio are Volunteer Victim Advocates. These dedicated, trained volunteers are available to meet with victims 24/7 and can provide support until full-time Sexual Assault Prevention and Response personnel become available.

Master Sgt. Devon Simmons, a member of the 531st Intelligence Squadron, currently assigned to the JBSA SAPR office, decided to become a volunteer victim advocate years ago after an incident at a previous duty station.

“I received a call one night from a very close friend who said she had just been assaulted by an associate,” Simmons said. “My biggest concern at the time was, ‘Are you safe? Are you away from him?’ It literally happened minutes before she called me and I was the first person she called when this tragic event took place. That was when I decided that the SAPR program was something I wanted to get involved in.

“I hate to say that the experience was a shining moment for me, but it made me feel like I had a purpose,” Simmons said. “Not that the uniform didn’t mean I had a purpose, but this was different. For me to have an impact on an immediate basis, it meant a lot that she felt comfortable enough to come to me for help at that exact moment. ”

Eventually, Simmons was transferred to San Antonio where he immediately signed up for classes to become a volunteer victim advocate. Then, in November 2019, he was allowed by his unit to work for the SAPR program full time.

“This is a program I really, really believe in,” Simmons said. “When someone is reaching out, they are taking that initial step, they are trying to take control back. They have made the conscious decision, whether it is contacting the program, going to the doctor, or talking to a friend with no actual plans of using SAPR services, they have made the conscious decision that they are going to go from being a victim to being a survivor.”

In many cases, a victim of sexual assault may be hesitant to seek assistance, which can delay recovery according to a local military sexual assault survivor, now an Air Force veteran.

“I was a new Airman, so there was this sense of total isolation, being removed from family and friends,” the young veteran said.  “Having a victim advocate can make or break how an individual is able to process and overcome.”

The advocate who assisted this young Airman encouraged her to seek assistance, which was greatly needed.  

“To have that glimpse of compassion from the victim advocate was really the first time I wasn’t taking the blame on myself,” she said. “I had almost resigned to a state of, this is how life is now. Even late in the game, this was someone to was able to help me reframe what was going on, someone to encourage me to go see mental health, someone to encourage me to seek medical treatment. She made a huge difference in my life. My only regret is that I didn’t find someone like that sooner.”

Having someone there to listen and support a victim through recovery can bridge the gap when trying to transition to survivor.   

“I don’t say it lightly when I say a victim advocate can be the difference between life and death for some people. Not everyone, but for some,” she said. “It is a big responsibility, helping people who are so vulnerable and cannot advocate for themselves.

“Being strong looks different sometimes. Being strong is sometimes seeking help and advocating for yourself, and finding someone who will help you advocate. Sometimes you don’t have the strength to be everything you need to be on your own, and if you find yourself in that position, the strong thing to do is to find someone that can help you carry that burden.

“Volunteer victim advocates have the ability, training and heart to help lift that load, and it’s a heavy load,” the veteran said. “I am so thankful for the people who step in and bridge that gap. I needed a lot more help than just the victim advocate, but she was the catalyst that set me in the direction to find the help I needed. You don’t have to be the answer, but standing up like a road sign pointing someone in the right direction sure is helpful.”

Simmons agrees that helping victims find their voice and the strength to regain control is imperative to recovery.

“There is no greater strength than taking that control back,” Simmons said. “I make sure I let every victim I meet with know that it took an immense amount of courage to say, ‘I am not going to just be a victim. I am going to turn this around, and I am going to be a survivor.’”

Those interested in becoming a Volunteer Victim Advocate can contact their supervisor and their local SAPR offices at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, 210-808-8990; JBSA-Lackland, 210-671-7272; JBSA-Randolph, 210-652-4386.

Applicants accepted and trained will be committed to the program for one year, and should take the commitment seriously. The next training session will be held March 23-27.

“I received a call the second day I was on duty,” Simmons said. “When the phone rings, that person needs you and you need to be available. You don’t have to be the best; you are going to be nervous. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Just be there, have compassion for that person and realize what it took for them to take control again and call.” 

Victims of sexual assault who need immediate support may call the local 24-hour SAPR crisis hotline at 210-808-7272, or go to the DOD Safe Helpline website for anonymous, confidential support at https://safehelpline.org/.