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Dyess AFB SAPR adapts during pandemic

Marisa Hensley, 7th Bomb Wing sexual assault prevention and response victim advocate, left, and Elaine Stirling, 7th BW sexual assault response coordinator, hold up a banner at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, April 20, 2020. Hensley and Stirling work together to arrange events and outreach programs to raise awareness and support for sexual assault victims. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Colin Hollowell)

Marisa Hensley, 7th Bomb Wing sexual assault prevention and response victim advocate, left, and Elaine Stirling, 7th BW sexual assault response coordinator, hold up a banner at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, April 20, 2020. Hensley and Stirling work together to arrange events and outreach programs to raise awareness and support for sexual assault victims. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Colin Hollowell)

DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Every year the Dyess Air Force Base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response staff coordinates different events and activities to help bring awareness to the victims and survivors of sexual assault.

This year, the majority of events coordinated by the Dyess AFB SAPR office had to be shelved in accordance with Department of Defense guidance implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Although COVID-19 has caused many things to change, Dyess’ SAPR team is adapting while continuing to raise awareness.

“COVID-19 has unfortunately left us unable to do the normal outreach activities we would generally do” said Elaine Stirling, 7th Bomb Wing sexual assault response coordinator. “Even though this calls for some adjustment, people still need to know that SAPR is still working to support victims.”

Stirling fears that COVID-19 could exacerbate sexual assault cases as well as discourage victims from reporting.

“As people are sheltered in place, it can create an environment that fosters domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Stirling. “Because of that, we want to ensure that people know and understand what their options are.”

She stressed the importance of knowing two forms of reporting: restricted and unrestricted.

“Restricted reporting means you would report directly to the victim advocate, SARC, volunteer victim advocate or a healthcare professional,” said Stirling. “The victim’s leadership and law enforcement would not be notified or involved, but it gives us an opportunity to provide both physical and mental health care which is vital during these situations.”

“Unrestricted reporting means that an investigation is immediately going to take place,” said Stirling. “SAPR can still provide the victim all of the physical and mental health care and no contact orders.”

Unrestricted reports are initiated by anyone in the victim’s chain of command: their supervisor, first sergeants or any other mandatory reporters.

Stirling said that victims will occasionally blame themselves after being sexually assaulted.

“What did I do? Was it my fault? Did I say something wrong? Was I wearing something that wasn’t appropriate?” said Stirling. “It’s not your fault, someone made a conscious decision to take advantage of a situation that was not theirs to take advantage of.”

Before guidance was put into place to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, SAPR had planned events to bring awareness to these questions that victims struggle with.

“An event that we do every year that we couldn’t this year is the ‘What Were You Wearing’ display,” said Marisa Hensley, 7th BW SAPR victim advocate. “The rotating display showed real examples of outfits worn during actual sexual assault crimes and would be set up in public areas on base during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.”

Although COVID-19 was the cause of cancellations for events such as the “What Were You Wearing” display and an awareness 5K, Hensley mentioned a day dedicated to sexual assault awareness that has been recognized by SAPR and other awareness advocates for several years.

“Denim Day is April 29, and it is a form of ‘What Were You Wearing’,” said Hensley. “The day emphasizes that what someone is wearing doesn’t matter and is not a form of consent.”

On Denim Day, the community is encouraged to wear denim in support of sexual assault victims and survivors, Hensley explained.

A large part of SAPR’s role in raising awareness is accomplished through different outreach programs, which have been paused temporarily due to current social distancing guidance.

“I hope that Denim Day helps us to make up for the inability to raise awareness through the outreach events that we feel are so important,” said Hensley. “Hopefully, having this day will remind people that sexual assault is still happening and people need support.”

Stirling and Hensley are always working to continue to raise awareness for sexual assault while giving the necessary resources and support to victims.

Dyess victim advocates can be reached at (325) 696-SARC (7272).