As a leader, you may encounter a situation where there is a sexual assault in your unit. Knowing how to respond swiftly, appropriately, and sensitively is important in order to protect the survivor and ensure a positive and cohesive command climate is maintained. Below is some information and additional resources that you may find helpful in navigating sexual assault in your unit.
Command Leadership Responsibilities
Per DoD policy, there are requirements that must be met to ensure the health and safety of survivors and to maintain unit cohesion through a positive command climate, if sexual assault occurs or is reported at your unit. DoDI 6495.02 outlines in detail Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Procedures for the Department. Additionally, each Service and NGB has a policy on sexual assault. Links to Service and NGB specific policy, guidance, and resources can be found below. For additional information, you can also contact your local Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC).
Service members have two reporting options, (Restricted and Unrestricted). If a Service member discloses sexual assault to their chain of command or military law enforcement, then that survivor can only file an Unrestricted Report. DoD SAPRO outlines the process for both reporting options in a step-by-step guide. This guide contains important information on how to maintain a survivor’s safety and privacy throughout the reporting process. You can access the guide here.
Survivors of sexual assault shall be protected from coercion, retaliation, and reprisal in accordance with DoDI 6495.02. Retaliation can unjustly harm the lives and careers of survivors, bystanders, and responders. Retaliation has no place in the military and you must do your part to ensure an ethical and just command intolerant of such behavior. For more information about retaliation, including reporting resources for survivors go here.
To help ensure a comprehensive and appropriate response, DoD SAPRO has compiled a checklist of what should happen within the first 30 days of a survivor’s disclosure of sexual assault. You can access the checklist here.
Throughout military investigative and justice process, Service members who make an Unrestricted Report of sexual assault have rights that they are entitled to. To learn more about these rights please go here.
Effects of Sexual Assault
It is important to understand that survivors may exhibit different behaviors in the days, months, and even years after an assault. Survivors may not be able to operate at their full capacity after an assault, but with appropriate support and resources, survivors of sexual assault can heal after what happened.
A survivor may experience effects of sexual assault that can include some of the following symptoms and behaviors. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, and a survivor may exhibit all, some, or none of these behaviors.
- Mood swings
- A sense of helplessness
- Fear or phobia
- Difficulty sleeping
- Eating difficulties
- Withdrawal from others
- Difficulty concentrating
Additionally, research has shown that experiencing trauma can have significant effects on the brain, including how it takes in and processes information. These effects may also cause a survivor to react in a certain way during the event, or hold onto memories in a different way, which can last days, weeks, and even years after the experience. You can read more about symptoms and behaviors, as well as how trauma impacts the brain here, or by contacting Safe Helpline.
Tips on How to Talk to a Survivor
Knowing what to say after a survivor has disclosed their assault can be difficult. While there is no one “right” thing to say a survivor, an empathetic response to their disclosure is crucial. Here are some responses to let a survivor know that you support them:
“I’m so sorry this happened to you.” Showing a survivor empathy can build rapport and trust between you and the survivor.
“I’m here to help you get support.” A survivor trusted you and shared what happened to them. Let them know that you are there to ensure their safety and will respect their privacy.
“How can I help?” Let the survivor know that you are there for them. Ask them how you can help can put decisions into their hands and help them feel more in control about what is happening. However, it is also important to be clear about your role, any limitations you may have, and other avenues of support available to them.
This is not a comprehensive list of what you can say to a survivor to show empathy. Commanders can find tips on what to say and what not to say to survivors of sexual violence in the Safe Helpline self-paced course, How to Support a Survivor, or by reviewing the information on this webpage.
What is Safe Helpline?
Established in 2011, Safe Helpline is the Department of Defense’s (DoD) sole hotline for members of the DoD community affected by sexual assault. Safe Helpline is a completely anonymous, confidential, 24/7, specialized service—providing help and information anytime, anywhere. A Safe Helpline user can access one-on-one support, peer-to-peer support, information, resources, and self-care exercises 24/7 to aid in their recovery.
Safe Helpline is available worldwide and is operated by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, through a contract with the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Office (DoD SAPRO). Safe Helpline works closely with DoD SAPRO, each of the Military Department SAPR offices, and the installation-based SAPR programs to ensure all Safe Helpline users receive the information, support, and care they need at every stage of their healing process. To ensure the anonymity of Safe Helpline services, no personally identifiable information about a visitor will be recorded or shared with the DoD or the visitor’s chain of command.
How Safe Helpline Can Support You and Your Unit
Our highly trained Safe Helpline staff are available to answer your questions, provide resources and get you contact information for a variety of on-base and off-base resources you may need. You can connect with a staff member by calling the Telephone Helpline at 877-995-5247.
Like the Telephone Helpline, accessing the Online Helpline can connect you to a staff member through an anonymous online platform to answer your questions, help you talk to a survivor, and find on-base and off-base resources. You can access the anonymous Online Helpline 24/7 by logging on to our website at safehelpline.org or connecting through the Safe Helpline app.
The Responder Database consists of more than 2,500 military and civilian resources around the world, searchable by installation name or zip code. The database can help you find contact information for responders, even if they are not on your installation, associated with your Service, or in your local community.
The Safe Helpline app gives you access to the Telephone and Online Helplines, peer-to-peer support through the Safe HelpRoom, the Responder Database, and has interactive self-care exercises. The App may be especially helpful if your unit is deployed. Safe Helpline uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to enable free access to the Telephone Helpline directly from the app and was specifically designed for members of the DoD community stationed OCONUS. This technology allows you to access Safe Helpline without the need for calling cards, expensive international phone plans, or having to use DSN. It also ensures that use of the Telephone Helpline does not show up on your cell phone bill or call history. VoIP technology also enables you to call the Telephone Helpline with only a WiFi connection. The app is free and available to download on iOS and Android devices.
Understanding of sexual assault, its impact, and resources to help with the healing process to be able to provide to your unit can be helpful if they’re looking for more information about sexual assault or how to support a survivor. Safe Helpline offers three unique, self-paced, programs to help those seeking support or information related to sexual assault. On average, each course should take approximately one hour to complete. Each course was built with a particular audience in mind, but all courses are available for anyone to take at any time. All three courses can be accessed anonymously through the Safe Helpline website here.
Addressing the Effects of Sexual Assault: This course seeks to help survivors begin to recover, heal and build resiliency after a sexual assault. Recognizing the impact that trauma can have, this program is part of a comprehensive effort to enhance resilience and improve readiness across the Total Force. This course can be helpful for someone in your unit who doesn’t feel comfortable talking directly to others and wants to learn more on their own.
This course provides concrete tools for friends, family members, co-workers and others in a unit t to help support the course of a survivor’s recovery. It clearly identifies helping behaviors that support survivors of sexual assault, while also educating supporters about behaviors that can be harmful and how to avoid them.
This course provides an overview of Safe Helpline, to include services offered, information about the secure platform Safe Helpline is built on, the technology used to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of users, and how Safe Helpline services support the work of local SAPR Programs to meet the needs of sexual assault survivors. The target audience for this training is SARCs, VAs, and other responders interested in learning more about Safe Helpline but may be helpful to you as you look for additional resources and areas of support for individuals in your unit.
Anyone who wants to comment or provide feedback about Safe Helpline, Sexual Assault Prevention Response personnel, or wants to report retaliation can submit directly to personnel at the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). For those reporting retaliation, SAPRO personnel will forward your report to the Department of Defense Inspector General. You can access the Military Feedback Form here.
The above provides a brief overview of available Safe Helpline services. For more information on each individual service, go here.
The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute has created a strategy to guide you in creating and maintaining a culture of prevention, response and support and how to intervene should issues arise. You can read more tips on how to create that culture here.
The Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program has a wealth of resources available to support victims of sexual assault. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of each of these responders, as well as at what point each responder may be involved in a case is incredibly important. DoD SAPRO has put together a response flowchart which you can access here.