HEIDELBERG, Germany — Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s signature was right there at the bottom of the page: the Defense Department, the memo said, was changing a longstanding policy that commanders need be told about sexual assaults in their units.

But some gathered at training this week near Heidelberg to learn how to be advocates for these same sexual assault victims still could not believe it.

The commander didn’t have to be told?

“If I don’t know ... If I don’t know,” one commander sitting in the training started to say. But then he just shook his head, “We need to revisit this,” he said.

Col. Denise Anderson, part of a team from Washington training soldiers to be unit victim advocates, told him she felt his pain. The Army’s top legal officers resisted the idea of “restricted confidentiality,” in which rape victims can eschew the chain of command and decline to officially report an assault — and still get counseling and medical services, she told him.

But civilian leaders overruled them. So, Anderson concluded, “We salute and execute.”

The new policy goes into effect June 16. Its proponents hope it will change what’s been repeatedly described as a climate of fear among sexual assault victims that they’ll be punished if they report an assault.

“I think it’s going to take some people some time to get used to it,” said Maj. Matthew Burton, one of some 209 soldiers selected by their commands to attend the training.

“It’s focusing on the victim: I think that’s good.”

The victim advocates are a “key component” of the new policy, tasked with helping confidentially guide victims to medical, legal and other resources in the wake of an attack. In garrison, that helper is expected to usually be one of scores of newly hired civilians.

On deployment, though, the soldier-advocates, called “unit victim advocates,” are supposed to be the point person for a sexual assault victim.

And those soldier-advocates are also expected to further the effort to be more sensitive to sexual assault victims by themselves being more educated about what victims endure.

So throughout Europe this week, the soldiers — mostly E-6s at Heidelberg — were being informed how emotionally and physically damaging sexual assault can be, what happens during a post-sexual assault medical exam, as well as how to listen to someone without appearing judgmental, and more.

Some felt the full weight of the duty being handed to them.

“This is a huge responsibility,” said Master Sgt. Arlette Farrish, who came from her unit in Turkey for the training.

“You want to be able to help someone,” but how, Farrish wanted to know, could she not tell her commander if she was going to be at the hospital for hours with a victim? And how could she promise confidentiality when her base has no medical facility and Turkish hospitals do not treat rape victims confidentially?

“One day of training is not enough,” Farrish said. “I think we’re going to have more questions than answers when we leave here.”

Other advocates-to-be hadn’t thought that far ahead, and, they said, they were doing all they could to absorb the training since they had never even known a sexual assault victim before.

“You have to know what you’re going to say, how you’re going to say it,” said Staff Sgt. Jose River, of the 208th Finance Battalion in Mannheim.

River said he was glad to be an advocate because he wanted to help soldiers but that he hopes no one is raped or sexually assaulted in his unit.

Sgt. First Class David Hummel wasn’t as worried.

Hummel had come from the Joint Warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway, and he said he doubted whether there’d be much call for his services there.

“I feel my chances of being called up are slim to none,” he said. “We don’t have barracks. We don’t have troops.”

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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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