By Staff Sgt. Victoria Nelson
157th Air Refueling Wing
Survivors of sexual assault in the Air National Guard have the support and the strength of familiar representatives in the Air Force’s own Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Victim Advocate program.
Victim advocates are airmen certified by the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program. They are selected by the installation's sexual assault response coordinator (SARC) to provide essential support, liaison services and care to victims.
“I am here for anyone as a confidential and judgment-free resource,” said Master Sgt. Ashley Lavalley, an avionics technician with the 157th Maintenance Group and victim advocate for the 157th Air Refueling Wing.
“As victim advocates we can provide resources for different agencies that can help survivors medically or legally, and attend any appointments or functions they want us to be at,” she added.
At Pease, there are three victim advocates in addition to the Wing SARC. Their role is critical to provide advocacy, support and resources available to military and civilian sexual assault survivors.
“I am glad to be part of a program that is still developing and making progress in bringing sexual assault awareness to the forefront,” said Master Sgt. Cynthia Swensen, a financial management craftsman with the 157th Comptroller Flight and victim advocate at Pease.
Volunteers go through an extensive certification process in order to provide the best support to victims. This includes an interview with the wing SARC, attending 40-hour training and obtaining a DOD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification they renew every two years.
“The continuing education training provides updates, constant improvements to the program and networking with state and local agencies,” Swensen said.
“Sexual assault is one area in society that needs attention,” she added. “It has no gender, ethic, age, religion or any biases. Through my years in the military, this is an awareness that unfortunately was not addressed soon enough but I am encouraged by the strength that survivors have and how leadership now presents the importance of the SAAPM training to their members.”
Lavalley emphasized that this culture shift means members have to learn how to change their perceptions, observations, and actions. She believes becoming a victim advocate has made her a more conscious and empathic leader.
“I think the best thing we are doing is finding the culture roadblocks, like retaliation and perception, that create fear amongst survivors and removing them from the military the best we can,” she said.
“I became a victim advocate to help people and it has changed me for the better,” she added. “I am more conscious of the things going on around me and how I present myself. I believe in standing up for what is right and empowering others to do so as well.”
Since the beginning of the SAPR program in 2012, more than 35,000 service men and women have been certified as SARCs and victim advocates.
In 2022, the DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) continues to promote military readiness by focusing on creating the appropriate culture to eliminate sexual assault, highlighting the power of acts that can bolster prevention and increase reporting and promoting advocacy for a safer DoD Community.
“Please do not hesitate to talk to the SARC or SAPR VA on questions or concerns about sexual assault you may have,” said Swensen. “We are trained to assist you at your pace. If you wish to discuss an incident that you or someone you know has experienced, no matter how long ago, we can provide resources.”