Wisconsin National Guard works to end sexual assault

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MADISON (WKOW) —  The Wisconsin National Guard is calling attention to its services to support sexual assault victims after reports surfaced earlier this year calling for change.

This April, teal ribbons hang in the lobby of the Guard headquarters in Madison to mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

There is one for every member who knows a sexual assault survivor. 

“The idea of the tree is to show the overarching impact that sexual assault has on an organization, so when an assault happens, there’s a ripple effect and it affects everybody in its path,” said Amber Garfoot, a victim advocate for the Guard.

Garfoot and about 50 other advocates throughout the state work to raise awareness with these efforts and find help for survivors.

She says she wanted to get involved because she knows someone impacted by sexual assault and the effect it can have on everyone around them.

“I want to make sure that others that experience crime still have the support systems in place that they need and have people that they can go to that they trust,” she told 27 News.

The advocates are trained and credentialed to help sexual assault survivors in the Army and Air Guard programs.

Advocate coordinator Katy Werginz works with support organizations across the state, like the Rape Crisis Center in Dane County and veterans centers, to provide resources to victims when they come forward to report incidents.

“It’s very difficult for victims to come forward, so the best thing to do is not judge the victims when they come forward,” she said.

Working with the resource agencies gives the Guard advocates a chance to share best practices and find different approaches to helping victims.

“You get to hear some of the things that they’ve gone through or experienced and we can share best practices and different things that we’ve done to help victims in different ways because each victim is different,” Werginz told 27 News.

The Guard recently released statistics on the number of sexual assault reports, after a 2002 report surfaced earlier this year when Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office called for an investigation.

The allegations claimed senior officers with the Wisconsin Air National Guard brushed aside reports of sexual assault and harassment. A master sergeant claimed there was a culture of sexual harassment that was overlooked.

Between 2013 and 2017, the guard received 52 reports of sexual assault. Thirty-two of those cases were referred to law enforcement and guard investigators determined 20 were related to the alleged victim or perpetrator’s military service.

Robert Brania, the Guard’s sexual assault response coordinator, says eight of those reports led to administrative action and two led to a court martial.

In the other cases, there wasn’t enough evidence or the victims chose not to move forward.

“If there is an expectation on the part of the public that these numbers should trend up or down, that might drive the train and from an advocacy standpoint, we want to place the victim in the driver’s seat, allow people to make their own decisions,” Brania told 27 News.

Guard officials are working to support victims in whatever way is most comfortable to them, but also educate all members to put an end to sexual assault.

“We’re talking about consent. These are issues that apply to everybody, regardless military service,” Brania said. “I try to make sure that the training connects with people and that it’s interesting, because this is a very applicable, relevant topic to everybody.”

Brania says the agency is drawing extra attention to the services available, as the spotlight remains on the issue of sexual assault in the military, but the Guard hasn’t made any changes to its sexual assault response program since allegations surfaced.

The governor’s office has also called for the National Guard to review how it investigates allegations of assault and the agency’s reporting procedures.

Jennifer Kliese

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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