As Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM) – which is commemorated each April throughout the Department of Defense – draws to a close, the Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps continues working tirelessly on behalf of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Its Victims’ Legal Counsel (VLC) program has provided assistance and advocacy to more than 6,100 people since its inception, fulfilling a critical legal need.
“The VLC program provides eligible victims of sexual offenses or domestic violence with a dedicated attorney. Their lawyer helps them understand the investigation and military justice processes, helps safeguard their legal rights, and helps them find recovery resources,” said Capt. Lisa Sullivan, chief of staff of the VLC program. “Our competent and caring personnel provide focused attention to those who need it most – victims navigating an incredibly challenging chapter of their lives.”
“I am, as always, incredibly impressed by the caliber of our dedicated staff, who are willing to go the extra mile for every single one of their clients,” Sullivan added.
Lt. Casey Jo Parker – a VLC stationed in Manama, Bahrain – recently took great measures on behalf of a client. Parker, who is the only VLC in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command area of responsibility, will complete her one-year, unaccompanied Bahrain tour this summer. Her caseload consists of civilian and military clients – including foreign nationals – on three different continents and eight different countries. In this particular case, Parker was supporting a foreign national client, who needed to travel to Norfolk, Va., to testify – an extremely challenging endeavor, particularly during a global pandemic.
“Despite all of the incredible hurdles it took to get a foreign national, without a visa on days’ notice into the U.S. during a pandemic, I am so glad I was able to push through and help her find closure,” said Parker. “Although the case resulted in an acquittal, it was very important that my client was finally able to be heard. Despite the traumatizing experience, she can finally close this chapter of her life and put it behind her. For me, that alone was worth all the work.”
“It was also a huge lesson in privilege,” Parker added. “I truly took for granted the rights and privileges that come with my U.S. passport, as going through the immigration process with a foreign national was quite eye-opening.”
Parker’s colleague in Naples, Italy – Yeoman 1st Class Jerahmeel Aveno – says the most rewarding part of working for the VLC program is contributing to “an important and necessary organization and mission.”
“It's especially rewarding getting to see how resilient our clients are and how the VLC played a part in helping them get through a difficult time in their lives,” said Aveno. “I also find doing outreach presentations rewarding. Unfortunately, there are still many out there who do not know that the VLC program exists, so it's great to be able to provide them with a new resource in case we are needed.”
Aveno joined to Navy in pursuit of a legal career. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Justice Studies from San Jose State University and hoped to become a paralegal. He thought joining the Navy was an ideal way to serve while also pursuing his career path; he joined as a Yeoman, as direct enlistment as a Legalman is not permitted. While working in the Naples VLC office, he was approved to convert to a Legalman, though the process remains ongoing.
“Once I was in the Navy and learning more about the Legalman community, I became even more attracted the job. Their critical role in courts-martial and non-judicial punishment proceedings, the legal assistance they provide, and the support they give to judge advocates, Sailors, and the entire Navy makes the Legalman community exactly the kind of team I want to be a part of,” said Aveno.
The VLC program, which was established in 2013, continues to extend its reach in response to the Fleet’s legal needs. Since last December, VLC services are available to service members and dependents who are victims of domestic violence. This coming summer, 11 new VLC program billets will be filled, and the VLC program leadership team will expand to include an active-duty commander. In the future, two more civilian billets will be added to the headquarters team, and additional administrative support personnel will be assigned to VLCs in the field.
Parker and Aveno hope that word about the VLC program spread across the Fleet throughout SAAPM. They encourage service members to take full advantage of the wide range of support VLCs can provide.
“Even if you are unsure about whether or not you have been a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence, or think you are not eligible for our services, we still encourage you to reach out to the VLC,” said Aveno.
“It is so important to get a VLC when they decide to report an incident,” said Parker. “The process is extremely overwhelming for a victim when they first report, and it is vital they speak with an attorney who can advise them and help them navigate the best means to take in order to meet their goals – whatever they may be.”
Despite working long hours, and balancing a large caseload, Parker says her work as a VLC is very gratifying.
“The most rewarding part of being a VLC is being a voice for my clients,” Parker explained. “It is really hard for me to express it in words, but the edification I get from helping my clients through this process and to feel valued is the biggest reward. It is a calling that I am grateful I answered, and it is one of the greatest things we can do as military attorneys.”
For more information about the VLC program, or to locate a VLC near you, visit https://www.jag.navy.mil/legal_services/vlc.htm.