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Army eyes better care for sex assault victims

Jun. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Capt. Mylinh Bruhn collects forensic materials during a recent Sexual Assault Medical Forensics Examiners course at Camp Humphreys, South Korea.
Capt. Mylinh Bruhn collects forensic materials during a recent Sexual Assault Medical Forensics Examiners course at Camp Humphreys, South Korea. (Maj. Brian Bolton / Army)
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As Army leaders shift focus to preventing sexual assault, the service is looking at ways to improve care for soldiers who come forward with complaints every year.

Commanders are looking particularly at upgrading medical examiner expertise and selections for sexual assault response coordinators and sexual assault prevention and response victim advocates.

Medical personnel have taken a Sexual Assault Medical Forensics Examiners course in several locations.

The class teaches medical professionals to properly execute rape kits on sexual assault victims, then properly store and handle the evidence. The kits provide collection supplies for DNA including hair, fluids and skin cells; foreign fibers or dirt; and blood samples for alcohol or other substances.

Responders also learn about sexual violence dynamics, sex offender behavior patterns and identification of common injuries associated with sexual assault, as well as strategies for approaching and supporting survivors.

“Victim-centered care is paramount to the success of the exam process and this is a key component of the course,” said Capt. Kelly Meister, a public health nurse and sexual assault coordinator in South Korea.

The training is designed to bring Army procedures in line with the Justice Department’s medical examiner forensics training.

“The goal of the [Medical Command] SAMFE training course is to standardize the Army SAMFE course material being presented and instructed within the military treatment facility,” MEDCOM spokeswoman Maria Tolleson said. “We want to ensure clinical competency training is standardized and successfully completed in a timely manner.”

Further, the training prepares medical personnel to be witnesses in court, either for cases they responded to, or as experts on sexual assault response.

SAMFE training is coming this year to Medical Command Headquarters and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, as well as additional courses for Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Camp Humphreys, South Korea.

What happens 'after'

The Army is working to improve care of victims after the initial reporting and medical exam.

“After we do the technical of the forensics exams that need to be done, 52 percent of our behavioral health providers are also victim advocates,” Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s surgeon general, told reporters June 10 at the sixth annual Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Summit. “We can have continuity of care and training, because it’s not just the episode of when they come in, it’s really the support through this entire healing process that is so important.”

That same day, Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, discussed reworking the way commanders appoint SHARP coordinators.

“You cannot just pick ... by detail. We’ve got to go back and look at that,” he said. “We pick by rank, sergeant first class or major at the brigade level. Somebody already brought to me today, maybe we should not have a rank requirement. Maybe it could be a private, but if it’s the right person ...”

The Army might rethink the victim advocate position, he said.

“I’m starting to look into seriously, maybe the victim advocate should only be a civilian,” he said. “That way you’ll get not only the background training, but they’ll have some type of experience.”

Incentives for trainers

The Army is looking for ways to give incentives for SHARP service, Army Secretary John McHugh said during the conference. Until now, no awards or career advancement opportunities have been given for a job well done, unlike many other specialized Army positions.

Once the incentives are determined, they will be available to the 446 new uniformed SARC and SAPR VAs that the Army has been authorized to hire.

In the future, SARC and SAPR VAs will be appointed by their first general officers or civilian equivalents, placing the discretion into higher-ranking hands, McHugh said.

SHARP soldiers and civilians will undergo regular behavioral health checks to determine their fitness for the job.

“These are positions of intense personal trust, and we need to make certain that those selected have the right tools and skills needed to carry them out effectively,” McHugh said. “Moreover, these jobs are often stressful, and we owe it to those who serve in them the means to better ensure their own continued behavioral health and well-being.”

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