Pentagon Hosts 2nd Annual SAAPM Event, “Walk-A-Lap for a Survivor”
By Lt. Ashley Valanzola, Sexual Assault Victim Advocate and Event Lead
WASHINGTON (NNS) — For the second consecutive year, Pentagon victim advocates, Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, and volunteers held a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month event at the Pentagon Courtyard, April 20.
348 Pentagon employees and guests from the National Capital Region participated in the Walk-a-Lap for a Survivor event, which doubled the number of the previous year’s attendees. As participants made their way around the courtyard, volunteers tallied 590 completed laps — each of which symbolically represented support for a sexual assault survivor in the local community. Participants included active duty service members, civilians, contractors, and guests from the local area.
Twelve different displays lined the courtyard to engage guests as they walked. Representatives from the Department of Defense Safe Helpline; Doorways Shelter for Women and Families in Arlington; Family Advocacy Program, Alexandria Sexual Assault Center; and Air Force and Navy Sexual Assault Response Coordinators created outreach and prevention displays to educate DoD participants.
Volunteers from the organizations noted how engaged and interested guests were throughout the walk. Participants seemed to approach them with open-minded curiosity and a desire to understand the issues their organizations face when confronting sexual assault.
Kelly Randis, author of “Spilled Milk” and last year’s event speaker, returned again to the event. Participants were able to speak with Randis about her experiences battling childhood sexual abuse and her incredible work as an advocate. Randis visited the Pentagon just days after the announcement “Spilled Milk” will soon be turned into a movie.
Two guest speakers opened the event with how they struggled with their own experiences involving sexual assault. James Landrith, Marine Corps veteran, activist, publisher, and rape crisis worker, told his story of how a pregnant woman drugged and raped him as a young Marine in North Carolina. He explained how he buried the rape away and pretended like nothing ever happened. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder plague his everyday interactions, including things as simple as getting coffee at a coffee shop. It took him nearly 20 years to decide to see a therapist.
Landrith’s decision not to seek help was a result of the stigma associated with male survivors of sexual assault. He noted in the United States alone, there are nearly 3 million male rape survivors, many of whom never come forward to seek help.
“There are more wounded men than we can truly know as the social stigmas to keep silent and ‘shake it off’ are incredibly strong and unfortunately enforced on all sides,” Landrith said.
He wrapped up his speech with a call for all crisis counselors, sexual violence advocates, friends, colleagues, and parents to be that person a sexual assault survivor can trust — to be that person who can help them heal.
“Many survivors will only seek help once, if at all,” said Landrith. “How that interaction transpires will play a major role in their willingness to move forward in their healing.”
Jessika Rovell spoke second and delivered an account of surviving sexual assault and domestic violence. Jessika is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and also a Navy Reservist. She told the group she hoped that by telling her story, she could help change the way the military thinks and talks about sexual assault.
She started by outlining the problem the military has when faced with cases of sexual assault — that the military is a proactive culture.
The military understands that “it’s more advantageous to take initiative from a strategic position than to react to forces outside our control,” said Rovell.
Yet when it comes to sexual assault, she pointed out that the military maintains a reactive posture.
“We allow our unconscious minds to lull us into a false sense of security, knowing sexual assault happens, but creating scenarios in which it does not impact our workplaces,” said Rovell. “When it does, we react to it on an emotionally chaotic level…”
To solve this problem in the military, Rovell stated we must shift to a proactive posture, one that cultivates understanding that sexual assault can happen to anyone.
“It is only when we choose to be proactive that we can change the dialogue, empowering others to heal, engage in the discussion, and support prevention efforts with us,” Rovell said. “[We need to become] the military that already makes proactive choices every day, to protect what is important.”
Rovell also emphasized the problem the military, and society at large, has with victim-blaming survivors of sexual assault. After working with a Special Victims Unit detective to build a case against the man responsible for her assaults, and an ABC News documentary highlighting her experiences, Rovell’s case was thrown into the media spotlight.
Speaking about the documentary she stated “…the reactions of some of my Navy colleagues after the television program aired were simply devastating. There was a group who actually blamed me. They said openly that I had displayed flagrantly poor judgment in both putting myself in a situation to be raped and then choosing to stay in an abusive relationship with my attacker. This response broke my heart because I did not choose any of this. A psychopath chose — chose me to assault and abuse.”
Event participants remarked that hearing the stories of Landrith and Rovell reminded them how this crime happens too often in the military and there is something they can do to make a difference.
Sexual assault in the military and society is a problem that demands our attention year-round, but the opportunity to bring so many experts and survivors together at the Pentagon is one of the many advantages of observing Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
For anonymous sexual assault assistance, please visit http://www.safehelpline.org/ or call 877-995-5247.