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Picking up the pieces: First step in reporting sexual assault should be contacting the SARC

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Editor's note: In this series on reporting a sexual assault we wanted to look at each step in the process for a "typical" sexual assault case on an Air Force installation. The first week we'll focus on the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator's role. The second week, we'll focus on the commander's role. The third week, we'll look at law enforcement. The last week, we'll look at the legal side of things. To set the stage, the fictional case is this:

A 21-year-old female Airman attended a party with friends from her squadron. After drinking, she felt tired and went upstairs to lie down. She woke up as she was being sexually assaulted by an Airman she had seen around base, flirted with earlier in the evening, but didn't know personally.

She pushed him away, she tried to scream. He continued to assault her. After a while, he left. She was in shock and ashamed. She lay there stunned for some time, straightened herself up and left the house tip-toeing through sleeping bodies. The party was over.

The next day, Airman Doe called Tinker's SARC.

"Thankfully, she came in the next day," said Michelle Loughlin, Tinker's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program coordinator. "My first response was to suggest she consent to a sexual assault examination with a nurse."

Immediate medical attention and safety should be any young woman's first priority after a sexual assault, Ms. Loughlin said. Reporting options can be ironed out later.

There are two types of reporting options available to DOD members and their dependents: restricted and unrestricted. A restricted report keeps all of the victim's information confidential, including medical examinations. An unrestricted report is not confidential, but is necessary for law enforcement involvement and potential prosecution of the assailant. The SARC, a victim advocate, chaplain or medical professional can take a restricted report.

"Some people think that if they get a medical exam, that everyone is going to know. That's not the case. A victim can contact me and I call in a victim advocate who can help them through the process by providing resources and support," Ms. Louglin said.

The exam is performed by a female nurse trained for sexual assault examinations. The YMCA coordinates all the sexual assault examinations at three Oklahoma City-area hospitals via a 24-hour hotline.

These forensic exams are confidential and are kept for five years. Nurses can collect evidence necessary for criminal prosecution should the victim choose to make an unrestricted report, but all this can still be done without making an unrestricted report. If a victim initially decides on keeping their case restricted, they can change to an unrestricted report later, Ms. Loughlin said.

Tinker has 28 trained victim advocates who work with the SARC. Their job is to ensure the victim has a safety plan, inform them on counseling options, provide books and resources for coping with the aftermath of sexual assault, and informing victims on what to expect during their process.

Whether a victim decides to make a report restricted or unrestricted, they should visit the SARC and fill out a DD 2910 for two reasons, Ms. Loughlin said. First, to get medical attention, second, to have proof that they disclosed a sexual assault to the SARC for future medical claims.

The second leading cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, behind combat, is sexual assault. This, and other emotional problems, will be the biggest challenge for the young Airman as she moves through the process. Many people believe that "crying rape" is a common way for young women to deceive themselves and others and cover up bad decisions. However, according to FBI statistics, fewer than 8 percent of reported sexual assaults are fabricated.

"Because of this reaction, this young Airman will have a hard time trusting society, the military, her fellow Airmen and herself," Ms. Loughlin said.

In many ways the "psychological trauma is worse in a he said/she said rape case," Ms. Loughlin said. A young woman was violated and instead of a communal clamoring for justice, she gets people questioning her motives and blaming her for the actions that left her vulnerable.

"Victims don't need that. They blame themselves the most already," Ms. Loughlin said. That's where the SARCs office comes in. "It's OSI's job to find the truth. It's the JAG's job to represent the U.S. government. It's my job to support and protect the victim to the best of my ability."

Once the young woman has had her examination, she returns to her dorm, unsure of what she should do next. Ms. Loughlin has told her that if she decides to do an unrestricted report she'll have to recount her story to investigators and in court. She asks herself if she can do that without breaking down. What are all her assailant's friends going to say about her? What are her parents going to do? She didn't even want to think about telling her mother.

After a long and difficult night of soul-searching she decides to make her case unrestricted. She can't bear the thought of letting her assailant get away with what he did, or risk him doing it again to someone else.

Next week we'll take a look at how an unrestricted sexual assault report is dealt with by commanders and how it can affect a unit.