HEIDELBERG, Germany — The Army will for the first time be training nearly 250 advocates for rape victims throughout the European theater.

The training, to be held next week, comes in response to mandates to improve how the Army treats victims and deals with sexual assault. Every battalion-size or larger unit has selected two soldiers to attend the eight-hour training to help sexual assault victims navigate their way through medical, legal and other avenues in the wake of an attack.

“The whole intent is to help re-empower them after a sexual assault so that they can make choices to go from there,” said Mildred Skidmore, Family Advocacy Program manager for the Installation Management Agency in Europe.

The advocate effort, overseen by Lt. Col. Mary Dooley-Bernard, manager of the U.S. Army’s Family Advocacy Program, is a “key component” in Army plans to fix what has repeatedly been called a dysfunctional system, which too often blamed victims instead of helping them and did not hold perpetrators accountable for criminal acts.

The training of 209 unit victim advocates, or UVAs, is the first step in making victims feel comfortable in reporting attacks and getting help. Victims who seek an advocate will be promised confidentiality, and that contact will not trigger an investigation unless the victim agrees.

“The goal that we have is that the UVAs will provide support to the victim and help create an environment where victims feel safe to come forward. It’s a cultural shift,” said Dooley-Bernard.

Veterans Affairs studies and a variety of military inquiries have consistently shown that women military members often do not report assaults against them, in part because they fear that they would be prosecuted for “collateral misconduct,” such as alcohol offenses, and other damage to their career.

Victim-advocate groups working with the Pentagon argued that because of that, confidentiality was important to soldiers, who could decide later if they wanted to report their attack to criminal justice authorities.

But the advocates will help provide “trend data” to commanders to get a more accurate picture of the frequency of sexual assault.

So one measure of whether the program is working will be what appears to be an increase in sexual assaults.

“And we’re telling leadership that that’s OK,” Dooley-Bernard said.

“The first year is going to be a baseline, and then we can start to measure from there,” said Maj. Carla Reed, a policy expert on the team visiting from Washington, D.C. The next place team members do their training is Iraq.

The unit victim advocates are to be part of a network of new support for victims. The Army is also hiring scores of new civilians in the effort, as community victim advocates when units are in garrison, and sexual assault response coordinators, who will oversee the work of the advocates and provide continuous training. Some 35 of them also will be attending next week’s training.

Dooley-Bernard said success of the unit victim advocate program depends on the quality of the advocates. According to the policy, they are required to be either staff sergeants or above or first lieutenants or above with spotless records and a desire and ability to help traumatized fellow soldiers.

Additionally, Dooley-Bernard said, despite the significant resources and policy changes, commanders have to support the program.

“If we don’t get buy-in from the commanders ... we can write policy all day,” she said.

The new policy is a response to an Army task force report last May that said the Army lacked programs to train leaders and soldiers in preventing and responding to sexual assault.

At the same time, it was determined that despite suspected under-reporting, allegations of sexual assault in the Army had risen steadily over the past five years. Data, obtained from the Army by the Washington Post, showed that the number of reported sexual assault cases increased by 19 percent from 1999 to 2002.

According to a March newsletter sent to troops from the U.S. Army Europe commander, Gen. B.B. Bell, sex assault crimes are the second-most reported felony in his command.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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