News | Oct. 25, 2012

Victim Witness Assistance Program, More than Just Filling out a Form

By Legalman 1st Class Justin M. Wiser, USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77)

This past April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign reiterated the importance of providing this critical support to victims.  As the Victim Witness Assistance Coordinator (VWAC) aboard USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77), I am always on the alert as to how I can meet the Navy’s Victim Witness Assistance Program (VWAP) expectations.

The Victim Witness Assistance Program assists victims of crime -- including sexual assault -- by providing information and access to resources. The program is also allows victims and witnesses of crime to elect to be notified of the results of court-martial, confinement status and release of Navy prisoners.

The JAG Corps is very clear about its stance on VWAP:  the program “is of paramount importance to the Navy and the JAG Corps. Victims and witnesses have the right to be treated with fairness and respect and to be reasonably protected from the offender.” DD Forms are provided to ensure information is recorded clearly and concisely, but an effective VWAP is far more than just filling out a form. 

A successful program is dependent on good communication, with both the victims and witnesses, and among the various professionals involved in the process. When I first checked aboard the ship, I volunteered to assume the VWAC collateral duty.  From the beginning, my chain of command has been supportive of the program.  I was fortunate enough to attend the U.S. Marine Corps VWAP Training Conference at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. 

This was an excellent networking opportunity and I left with an extensive list of references and resources. An aircraft carrier can be a difficult setting for a victim or witness.  Stress, the inability to escape and close quarters all contribute to a challenging situation.  I have found that victims and witnesses are often receptive to receiving help from outside of the ship environment.

Lt. Rob Nelson, Chaplain Corps, explained that the Command Religious Ministry Department is an invaluable shipboard resource. 

“Most Chaplains today come in with years of experience in counseling for various traumatic situations, and many have served in clinical rotations, or have advanced post-graduate education with counseling,” said Nelson. Communications with a Chaplain is generally protected from disclosure under Military Rule of Evidence 503 (“Communication to clergy”).

“We can help them sort through the confusion, and gain clarity, even closure, throughout the entire process,” said Nelson.  “We are the only ones equipped, and commissioned, to guide someone through the situation in a manner that is in keeping with their faith issues like forgiveness, justice, and guilt.”

For all who work in the legal profession and for legalmen in particular, it is important to be on the look-out for victim and witness issues.  In meeting the challenge of the daily workload of disciplinary cases, victim and witness concerns may be at risk of being marginalized.  This should never happen.

In every case, there should be a quick analysis:  Are there victims or witnesses in this case?  What type of help does this individual need?  Simply taking a few minutes to listen can be incredibly beneficial. Only with support from the chain of command, observant legal and security personnel and a desire to help those who require assistance will VWAP meet the needs of victims and witnesses and enhance the efficiency of the command’s military justice system.