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Sexual assault survivors; It is not your fault

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

When victims of sexual crimes need assistance navigating processes and the legal system, the Joint Base San Antonio Special Victims’ Counsel program is available to help. Special Victims’ Counsel are attorneys and paralegals specially trained to represent victims of sexual assault. They have litigation and military justice experience and can provide information and answer questions victims may have regarding the process

Members of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program  continued to observe the yearly tradition of placing small flags along the walkway in front of NNSY’s Norman Sisisky Management and Engineering Building, each flag with handwritten message to victims of sexual assault showing support. Due to Coronavirus-19 (COVID-19), many planned events related to Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month(SAAPM) were unfortunately cancelled to minimize any potential spread and ensure the safety of those who would be in attendance. However, that hasn’t stopped NNSY from recognizing the significance of SAAPM at the shipyard.

Members of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program continued to observe the yearly tradition of placing small flags along the walkway in front of NNSY’s Norman Sisisky Management and Engineering Building, each flag with handwritten message to victims of sexual assault showing support. Due to Coronavirus-19 (COVID-19), many planned events related to Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month(SAAPM) were unfortunately cancelled to minimize any potential spread and ensure the safety of those who would be in attendance. However, that hasn’t stopped NNSY from recognizing the significance of SAAPM at the shipyard.

Protecting our people protects our mission graphic for sexual assault awareness and prevention month

Protecting our people protects our mission

April 2020 marks the 15th anniversary of the Sexual Assault Prevention Response program after it was established in 2005. The program offers services to victims of sexual assault and provides training to aid in the prevention of sexual assault.

April 2020 marks the 15th anniversary of the Sexual Assault Prevention Response program after it was established in 2005. The program offers services to victims of sexual assault and provides training to aid in the prevention of sexual assault. (Courtesy graphic)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

*Author’s Note: Names in the text have been changed to protect the source’s identity. This article contains topics that may be sensitive to certain audiences.

There may be few people who can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing in February 2015.

Cassidy Smith* can.

Smith is an Airman stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Back in 2015, Smith was stationed at a different base living a different life. Little did she know everything was about to change.

“I went to a friend’s dorm room to hangout and watch a movie,” said Smith as she recalled that evening. “I had been introduced to Brad Jones* from a mutual friend in tech school about six months prior at a bar. We talked from time to time over Facebook and hung out once prior.”

Smith went to Jones’ room and at some point during the movie it became clear Jones had crueler intentions.

“He raped me, and I didn’t fight back,” Smith said.

“I told him no repeatedly and tried to move away,” she continued. “I didn’t fight back, so I blamed myself. I thought if I had tried harder to get away or had I never gone to that room (it never would have happened).”

Smith went back to her dorm room after experiencing a complex trauma. She was betrayed and assaulted by a fellow Airman. The impact of this kind of trauma is unique to each individual person with symptoms that can change day to day.

“I knew what had happened to me, but I was scared to admit what had happened,” said Smith. “I hadn’t slept since it had happened. My dorm room that had once been my happy place (was now) my worst nightmare.”

Smith recounts that she couldn’t sleep and she experienced extreme anxiety in the days following the rape. The anxiety was heightened ever still when she would see her rapist around base.

“It was the afternoon after the rape,” Smith said when asked about the next time she had to face him eye to eye in public. “I went to the base exchange to get some food. Jones and some friends were there. We made eye contact and I left. I was scared. I got a message about an hour later of him being mad at me because I didn't come up and talk to him and his friends.”

It is said hindsight is 20/20 and unfortunately that could not be more true for those who have looked back on the events that led up to their rape as they themselves or authorities have tried to understand, “Why me? What did I do wrong?”

“After it happened all I could think of each time we had been around each other,” Smith said. “One time still sticks to me that happened a few days before the rape, which was a very large red flag. I was 19 and blew it off as if he was in a bad mood and I caused him to be mad because I didn't act like he wanted me to.”

Studies show that eight out of ten sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, according to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey.

“It is not uncommon for a sexual predator to engage in grooming behaviors prior to a sexual assault,” said Emily Calland, 325th Fighter Wing Sexual Assault Prevention and Response victim advocate. “This could include developing a rapport and building trust with a victim or using emotionally manipulative tactics to discover and target vulnerabilities. Many sexual predators utilize strategies to minimize resistance and prevent future disclosure, such as instilling guilt or fear.”

Smith’s attacker also used some of these tactics.

“He could twist things I said or did,” Smith said. “A friend and I went to the bowling alley and he was there. I said hi, talked for a few minutes, then I walked away to order my food and left with my friend. I get a message a little later from him being mad at me saying that I was acting weird and told me that I should have continued talking to him.”

“I asked if he was mad and he said he was and I didn’t understand why,” she continued. “In my head I had done wrong, but there was a gut feeling that something was off but I ignored it.”

Some sexual predators can demonstrate certain characteristics such as being narcissistic, controlling, insensitive, belittling, hostile, threatening, easily angered and can often have extreme mood swings as well as the occasional physical tantrums or forms of aggression such as hitting, kicking or slapping.

However, it is almost impossible to profile sexual predators because there are so many different variants, according to Christine McGill, 325th Fighter Wing SAPR Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

“On the night of the rape I told Jones, ‘I guess I need to say something better than no or stop in order to get you to stop and he chuckled, ‘yeah I guess you do,’” said Smith. “I messaged him and asked him why he raped me and he said, ‘Well, you acted like you wanted it.’”

After several days of relentless internal psychological agony, Smith finally broke down and sought help.

“It took about a week for me to tell anyone,” Smith said. “My supervisor was a victim advocate, and I went to her for help.”

Volunteer Victim Advocates are people who are highly trained, thoroughly screened and interviewed by Sexual Assault Prevention and Response staff members to be considered for the program. VVAs may volunteer from any of the installation’s units in addition to doing their primary duties.

“Upon completing the initial, comprehensive 40-hour training, VVAs are credentialed through the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program,” said McGill. They provide non-clinical crisis intervention, safety planning, referral and information to help support victims as they begin the healing process.”

VVAs act as a lifeline to the survivor until he or she feels they no longer need the support, according to McGill.

“The day I told my supervisor we had both been on shift together and I waited till the end of shift,” said Smith “I went to her and started crying and I could barely get the words out. When I finally was able to get the words out she asked if she could hug me and I said yes.”

“She said that she knew something had been off with me she just didn't know what,” she continued. “She never thought that this could be the reason.”

Luckily, because Smith’s supervisor was also a VVA, she had a lot of options for help.

“Supervisors are mandated reporters of sexual assault, but VVAs who are also supervisors may be informed of a sexual assault without having to report it,” said McGill. “Her supervisor was also able to utilize her training to provide crisis intervention and empower Smith with the knowledge of resources and support services available to her.”

“Through this time, she was my rock,” Smith said.

The process can vary depending on numerous factors such as the reporting choice, the person’s individual experience and personality, if there are supportive friends and family, and how the report is perceived from those outside the situation.

Who knows and how they feel can often make a huge impact on a survivor’s experience in the reporting process.

“One of the main reasons individuals don’t report a sexual assault is because ‘everyone will know,’” said McGill. “Details on the incident are kept to a minimum. The SAPR staff and VVAs only need to know enough to be able to provide support.”

The SAPR staff helps victims decide on what avenue they want to take in terms of treatment and legal reporting.

“In my direct leadership, no one knew but my supervisor,” said Smith. “I went restricted initially and then unrestricted about a week later. I decided to go unrestricted because I needed help. My squadron commander, shirt, and my group chief knew. These are the only people who knew because I expressed that I didn't want anyone to know what had happened to me. I didn't want to be treated differently. I went to work and tried to act as if nothing had happened.”

Active duty members, their dependents (age 18 and above), Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard members serving in Title 10 status (performing military duty obligations), and civilian employees are eligible for both the restricted and unrestricted reporting options.

“Only SARCs, SAPR VAs, VVAs, and healthcare personnel can receive restricted reports of sexual assault,” said McGill. “Individuals who elect to make a restricted report can receive the following services while maintaining confidentiality, including SARC, advocacy from a SAPR VA or VVA, Sexual Assault Forensic Examination, Special Victims’ Counsel, Mental Health, Employee Assistance Program (for civilians), local counseling resources, medical care, chaplain and religious affairs resources, and the Department of Defense Safe Helpline.”

“Sometimes, for some victims, they only want their story to be validated and making that report and having those conversations with a team of individuals who can provide that empathy and listening ear is all that is needed to begin the healing process,” she continued.

A victim can initially make a restricted report, but later choose to convert to an unrestricted report.

“Unrestricted reports can be made to the same agencies as restricted reports, as well as through the victim’s chain of command and law enforcement,” said McGill. “All of the same services available to victims who make restricted reports are available to those who elect to make unrestricted reports.”

Victims can also request an Expedited Transfer, Military Protective Orders or Civilian Protective Orders, and a non-rated period for performance evaluation under an unrestricted report.

Smith had originally made a restricted report, but felt she wasn’t getting the help she needed.

“I hadn't slept since I had been raped,” Smith said. “I would have constant flashbacks. I would try to sleep and would wake up drenched in sweat and in a panic attack.”

She then decided to file an unrestricted report to maximize her options and resources.

“The SARC office I went to was great,” said Smith. “They knew what they were doing each time I went to them; first when I originally made my report and then again when I requested the expedited transfer.”

Following Smith going unrestricted, came a series of events including a no contact order issued through the length of the investigation.

“I didn't know how much longer mentally I could deal with living there,” Smith said. “For years, I continued to be stationed on the same base as Jones. I would see him in passing in public places on base and it would be as if it was happening all over again. Ultimately, I decided to go unrestricted because I couldn't get the help I needed with a restricted report. I finally couldn’t handle it anymore and requested an expedited transfer.”

Requesting an expedited transfer was a major decision for Smith and was not one she made lightly.

“Expedited Transfers are offered to survivors of sexual assault to be able to get them to their support system,” said McGill. “Often times with members of the military, they are not located near their family or friends. The ET is offered to get them there. It is not a guarantee that they will get their first choice, but we try to get them to a place that aligns with their desires as well as meets the needs of the Air Force. It is a process for members to get to a safe, supportive space.”

ETs are only offered with an unrestricted report.

“I was originally offered an expedited transfer as soon as I went unrestricted but I said no,” she said. “I was only four hours from my family (at my base) and I had a life there. I refused to let him take more from me.”

Smith said she fought for two and a half years before she decided than even though her entire life was there she needed to make a major change for herself and stepped out of her comfort zone.

“It got to the point that I wouldn't go to out in public by myself,” Smith said. “I was always able to remove myself in some way to get away from him. But after two and a half years I couldn't handle it any longer. I requested a transfer.”

Smith made a difficult, but good, decision to be transferred. It could be argued as her most critical choice at that point in her reporting process that may have saved her life.

However, for Smith and many other sexual assault victims, there is not always the desired outcome at the end of the court process.

“My rapist was never charged,” Smith said. “I believe their reasoning was a lack of evidence. I had thrown away everything that I was wearing that night aside from a hoodie. I tried to erase that night at first. I now know I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I realize that I protected him a lot during the process,” she continued. “I told the truth and wanted him to know what he did was wrong but I still cared for him even after what he did to me.”

“I still have to remind myself every day that it is not my fault,” she said. “I hope my story helps other survivors know that it’s not their fault, and that hopefully they come forward to tell their story. There are no words that can change what happened to them. All you can do is be there for them.”