Story by Erin Wittkop, Defense Media Activity
“Empowering victims. We’ve got to create an environment in which victims feel that they’re comfortable coming forward and they know people have their backs, and that they will work through this process in a way that keeps the focus on justice and make right what’s been wrong as opposed to suddenly they’re on trial, it may weaken their position, it [may] compromise their ability to advance. That’s going to be important. They’ve got to know that they should have no fear of retaliation, no fear of stigma, no damage to their careers and certainly no protection for criminals.” – President Barack Obama after May 16, 2013, meeting on sexual assault in the military.
Sexual assault. These two words, when combined, elicit an emotional mixture of anger, outrage, disgust, disbelief, sadness, frustration, confusion, heartache and fear when I see or hear them.
Why would someone ever commit this crime? I don’t know. Frankly, I’m not sure I want to. There’s no “reason” I can conceive of that would ever help me make sense of this crime or offset the pain and suffering it inflicts on those that have endured it and the ones who love them. I just don’t get it; my psyche isn’t wired that way.
My feelings aside, the fact remains that it’s a very real part of life. It happens every day. In its wake, feelings like those I mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg for the survivors who have to process it. In my unprofessional opinion, the most important thing survivors and their loved ones need to remember in those moments is that:
You Are Not Alone.
You can report this crime. You can find support. You can help yourself, someone you love or work with to get the help you or they need.
If you’re an active duty service member or know someone who is, DoD Safe Helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to counsel you on your situation and help you determine your next steps. You can speak to an operator by calling 877-995-5247. Defense Switched Network (DSN) users outside of the U.S. should dial 94 before entering the above 10-digit toll free number.
If you can’t call toll-free or DSN, you can reach the helpline by calling 202-540-5962.
When you call in, a Safe Helpline staff member will be on the other end of the line ready to listen. A few things you should know about the staff:
- They’re highly trained individuals who have been educated to provide resources for sexual assault survivors
- They are employed by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN is on contract with the Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to provide all Safe Helpline services.
- They are knowledgeable about military-specific topics such as Restricted and Unrestricted Reports, how to contact your installation’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) and where to find other relevant military resources if you want them.
- They will keep your information confidential.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Kimberly “Tony” Korol-Evans, 2013 Safe Helpline Operator of the Year, after her award presentation during the Safe HelpRoom website launch. She’s the best-of-the-best when it comes to handling phone calls received on the Safe Helpline and offered some insight as to what people should expect when they call in.
“The most important thing we try to do is provide a safe environment; somebody who’s been through this, who’s been traumatized, letting them know that there is some place that is absolutely safe. We’re anonymous, we’re confidential. They can say anything that they need to say, they can ask anything that they need to ask. We don’t have all the answers all the time but we can usually find them or help them find the right answers.”
Dr. Korol-Evans also explained that the staff is trained to handle callers’ many and varied needs from assessing whether or not medical attention is necessary for someone who has just been hurt or offering resources to callers who are seeking information for different phases of care or reporting. Their priority is to help callers get in touch with individuals who will help them.
The most important thing she wants prospective callers to know is that making the call can be hard, but someone on the other end of the line is waiting to help them.
“Please understand that it may take you more than one time to picking up the phone. We hear that a lot. Keep trying because when you find your voice, we’re going to be there and we’re going to listen. We’re a listening ear. We’re here for you and you can take your time. We’re not going to pressure you. You can say as much or as little as you’re comfortable with. We’re there to support you.”
She also reminds survivors to be patient with themselves; healing is a journey, not a race. “Don’t bring expectations to the table. Every person is different. Every assault is different. Every person who goes through an assault is different. It takes different amounts of time to heal. Healing really isn’t like a race. It’s more like a journey. You can find all of this healing along the way but it comes in bits and pieces. Your journey is not the same course as anybody else’s.”
When our interview ended I felt relieved, not because it was over but because people like Dr. Korol-Evans exist. She was very genuine as she described her work and shared her very compassionate wisdom in hopes that someone out there might benefit from it. If I ever found myself needing to talk about a sexual assault, I would want to talk to someone like her.
For those of you out there looking for support and not ready to talk, Safe Helpline offers a number of options to give you resources without making a phone call. You can get info by text, chat with an operator online, download the Safe Helpline Mobile App for Android or iOS or join the new Safe HelpRoom, a twice weekly moderated chat room that allows military sexual assault survivors to safely chat with each other and benefit from peer support.
Whatever works for you, please heed Dr. Korol-Evans advice and keep trying. You don’t have to make this journey alone.
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