SAPR program stands up at Arnold AFB to support and guide survivors of sexual assault, sexual harassment

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

Victims of sexual assault may often find themselves unsure of where they can turn, what they can do and who they can approach to get the help necessary to heal.

At Arnold Air Force Base, a new office has been established to assist those needing such help.

The Sexual Assault Prevention Response, or SAPR, program office is located in Room B109 of Building 100. The office is staffed with Victim Advocates who can provide sexual assault victims with resources and information, present them with available investigatory reporting options, and guide them through any processes that result from their chosen course of action. 

The sexual assault victim advocates at Arnold are available 24/7.

Gary Johnson, Arnold AFB Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, said those traumatized by sexual assault may not know where to start to begin their healing journey. Johnson said that first step could be a visit or call to the SAPR office.

“They don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “They don’t know what questions to ask. They don’t know what services they need. They don’t know what services are available to them. The Victim Advocate’s role is really to be kind of a hand holder for them and walk them through that.”

The Arnold AFB SAPR office is comprised of Johnson and Sexual Assault Victim Advocates Nicole Berger and Kayla Vance. Johnson previously served in the Air Force. He has a background as a licensed marriage and family therapist. In this role, he helped people process thoughts and feelings to work toward solutions to difficulties in life. Vance came to Arnold from the Department of Children’s Services, where she served as an investigator who work with children under the age of 18 who were victims of sexual assault or victimized by human sex trafficking. She also worked for Drug Court in Coffee County, helping addicts who had been sexually assaulted or those with a mental health disorder. Berger brings to her role at Arnold 15 years of experience as a victim advocate in military settings. She spent the last 10 years working with the U.S. Marine Corps and five years prior to that working with the U.S. Navy.

The services provided by the SAPR office are available to active-duty service members, eligible dependents over the age of 18 and Department of Defense civilians. 

Victims who speak with SAPR advocates will have the option of submitting a restricted or unrestricted report of the assault. An unrestricted report triggers an official investigation of the incident and command at the installation is notified. Victims may work with law enforcement and will receive SAPR support throughout that process.

As part of the advocacy and support victims can receive from the command, they could be eligible for an expedited transfer from the installation for safety and security purposes.

A restricted report allows the victim to confidentially report the incident without prompting an investigation. Installation command is not provided the names of those involved and is only notified that an incident has occurred.

“It essentially is up to the victim and what their goal is when working with a SAPR Victim Advocate, because justice looks different for every victim,” Berger said.

A report of either type is not required if a victim wishes to disclose their sexual assault to SAPR personnel. Both options also allow the victim to meet with a Special Victims’ Counsel in the installation Judge Advocate General office.

“Special Victims’ Counsel is there to guide the victim through the legal process,” Vance said. “The legal process can be difficult for a victim to understand while they’re going through a life-qualifying event.”

Regardless of how the victim chooses to proceed, advocacy and support will be offered through the SAPR office.

“We’re here to help walk with them,” Johnson said. “We want people to know they don’t have to walk through it alone. There are folks here who can help them.”

Those in the Arnold AFB SAPR office agree that offering options to the victim gives them a voice and can help the individual feel empowered and in control of the situation.

“We want to be able to still give them as much choice as possible when they come in, so they technically are the ones driving the ship,” Berger said. “They can decline services at any point.”

Whatever path the victim decides to take, the Arnold SAPR office will be with them every step of the way, including accompanying them to the hospital after an incident and guiding them through legal proceedings, be it the filing of a restraining order to the court martial of the perpetrator. Victims also have the option of meeting with SAPR advocates in an off-base setting.

“We are literally with them every step of the way, being a voice, a sounding board, for their benefits and their rights,” Johnson said. “We see them from beginning to end. Until they say, ‘We don’t need your services anymore,’ we’re with them through any aspect of that.”

The SAPR office can provide victims with access to mental health care, military Family Advocacy Program support and a chaplain. These resources are currently provided to Arnold AFB with assistance from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

“If we don’t have the services here at Arnold, then we will go to Eglin or we’ll find them somewhere in the community,” Johnson said.

Those in the Arnold SAPR office also concur that anonymity is paramount throughout the process. The advocacy offered by the SAPR office is confidential and optional.

“We go to a lot of effort to protect the identity of the victim, to respect their privacy,” Johnson said. “They’ve been through enough, and a lot of times that information just revictimizes.”

The SAPR program can provide resources and assistance, even if the sexual assault did not occur recently.

“We’re not just restricted to a sexual assault that happened over the weekend in your apartment,” Johnson said. “If you experienced a sexual assault before you came to the military or while you were outside the military, if it’s something that happened while you were a child, you can come and services are still available to you if you fall in one of those three categories.

“The main thing is we want to be an advocate for folks to get the services they need to heal from that trauma.”

The Arnold SAPR office abides by the Air Force “No Wrong Door” policy, meaning if a contractor were to visit or call the office, help to get them the assistance they need will be provided.

“If a contractor were to come knock on our door and say, ‘I’ve been sexually assaulted,’ we’re not going to say, ‘Go away. We can’t service you,’” Johnson said. “We’re going to help point them to the people they can get services from.”

The office can also offer resources and guidance to those who know someone who has experienced sexual assault, even if it’s a case SAPR advocates would not open a case for.

Alongside victim advocacy, the SAPR office aims to eliminate incidents of sexual assault through education, awareness and prevention training.

Office personnel may also work with victims of sexual harassment, as those who have been sexually harassed are eligible for SAPR services.

“That is separate from an official complaint that one would file with the Equality Opportunity office,” Johnson said. “They can file restricted or unrestricted report with the SAPR office. They will still receive many of the same services.”

Arnold AFB has offered sexual assault response previously through collateral duty, but the SAPR office marks the first full-time office at the base dedicated to assisting victims. The office is the result of a congressional mandate directing all installations to have such an office. While managed locally, the office is overseen by a MAJCOM project manager based out of Wright-Patterson.

Johnson said all involved work in collaboration to ensure the SAPR office is best-fitted to provide the necessary services and meet the needs of those at Arnold.

“Fortunately, we have that, but we also have a commander who is very onboard with the SAPR program,” Johnson said. “He has a reputation at bases he’s been at before of being very supportive of the SAPR program and making sure his people are taken care of.

“We have all the tools necessary to make sure people get the help that they need.”

The Arnold AFB SAPR office can be reached at 931-454-4272 during the normal business hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Sexual Assault Victim Advocates may be reached any time via the SAPR 24/7 Helpline at 931-581-7494.

Victims may also seek assistance via the DOD Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247.