Special Victims’ Counsel provides critical resource, expands program

  • Published
  • By Airman Elijah Van Zandt
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

Whether a victim of sexual assault or interpersonal violence, the Special Victims’ Counsel provides legal advice, advocacy and outside services to personnel across the Department of Defense.

They assist the victim in making the critical decisions involving the military justice process against the accused, or helping the victim to find closure through support and resources.

SVC is a military attorney and paralegal team who work together to represent victims, while assisting them with confidential advice and support.

According to Capt. James McGehee, Malmstrom AFB SVC, when meeting with a victim, they explain the military legal system, empower the victim by providing information about their options and assist the victim in working with outside helping agencies.

“We give the victim an assessment of what to expect during the process,” he said. “This includes full-spectrum legal advice, up to the point of the victim feeling comfortable with their decision to pursue the case- or not.”

The SVC represents the victim personally, ensuring their client’s express interest before, during and after a court-martial, if necessary.

“The SVC is the only entity in the Air Force that personally represents victims as legal counsel,” said McGehee. “Without an SVC, victims don’t have the benefit of confidentiality with a professional who can provide them legal advice and information about their rights.”

He continued, “The Area Defense Counsel work for the accused persons and military prosecutors work for commands, SVC’s only answer to the victim.”

The SVC understands it may be challenging, especially for younger Airmen, to understand all their options when confronting legal challenges during an active case. This is why offering legal advice to the victim is a critical role of the SVC.

“There is nothing worse than being stuck in a situation feeling helpless, either because you are low ranking or because you don’t know what decision to make,” said Staff Sgt. Olga Vinson, 341st MW paralegal. “If you find yourself in a situation like that, please speak to the SVC - it is a safe-zone for advice, regardless of what decision you make.”

According to McGehee, victims are commonly referred to the SVC program from agencies on base such as the Sexual Assault Prevention Response office, Security Forces, Mental Health, or the chaplain.

“We represent victims from the very start, to the conclusion of the legal process,” said McGehee. “This means we can represent clients in making a decision whether to participate in an investigation, through the investigative process, all the way to the conclusion of disciplinary action such as court-martial.”

Indirect services may also be provided for areas the SVC does not cover, such as referrals to outside agencies like the Equal Opportunity Office in the example of race or gender related offenses, or the legal office, which provides legal assistance on civil matters.

The SVC program originally began in 2013, but recently expanded as of Aug. 1, 2021, and a pilot program was established to extend the range of services to interpersonal violence, including domestic abuse and sexual harassment.

The traditional SVC program is available to active duty, reserve, Air National Guard, civilians, dependent spouses or children and retirees, whereas the pilot program is only available to active-duty personnel or reservists on Title 10 orders.

“The vision has always been to provide more services,” said McGehee. “We started small with only supporting sexual assault victims, but being able to serve a broader segment of the Air Force population by giving them needed services is important in protecting victim rights.”