LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Many victims of sexual assault in the military say only one experience comes close to the pain of the actual crime, and that is going to court and bringing charges against the attacker. This may be one reason why so few victims do come forward and report these crimes. Now the Air Force is hoping a new team of lawyers will help change that.
NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: At Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama, a tall three-star general stands in front of a class of JAG officers, Air Force lawyers. He tells them they are pioneers in a new field, and then he lays a heavy responsibility on them.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL RICHARD HARDING: I don't want to put too much pressure on you, but I will tell you that the eyes of the nation are on you.
ABRAMSON: Lieutenant General Richard Harding has high hopes for the officers who have come to this base for training in a new field; they are among the first special victims counsels, or SVCs. They're attorneys who do not represent the defendant. They don't represent the government. They will stand up for the victims. Harding tells the audience they can help address the agony many assault victims associate with the court-martial process.
HARDING: We know 85 percent of our victims don't report today. Maybe if they understood the value of an SVC, some of them might feel a little bit more comfortable about reporting.
ABRAMSON: That's the long-term hope for the special victims counsel program, which is currently limited to the Air Force but could expand to other services. The immediate goal is to train around 60 lawyers who will help victims get through the legal process. And that's what the special victim counsels have already been trying to do in the 300 or so cases they've handled in the program's first few months. Captain Lorraine Sult says her work as a counsel near Colorado Springs has underscored that prosecutors don't speak for the victim.
CAPTAIN LORRAINE SULT: And a prosecutor's goal really is the conviction and my experience with my clients is that that's not always what the victim's goal is.
ABRAMSON: Sometimes watching out for a client's interest means making sure that private information isn't disclosed unnecessarily. And sometimes it means arguing for a different kind of justice.
SULT: I had a client, she didn't want to go through the court-martial process, but she wanted the individual who assaulted her to get help. And so we just worked through that together with the prosecutor. It ended up working out for her because she didn't have to go to court, but the person was - did leave the Air Force.
ABRAMSON: Special victims councils can also help airmen get transferred, deal with housing issues, or make sure that they feel safe in the aftermath of the assault. Some victims also have to deal with the fact that reporting an assault can result in charges against them, for underage drinking, for example. Special victims councils can help with that.
For the young lawyers who have been handpicked for this job, it can be a tough assignment. Aaron Kirk, a 31-year-old captain working in San Antonio, has heard some horrible stories.
CAPTAIN AARON KIRK: From unprofessional relationships in a sort of basic military trainee context, to very serious traumatic assaults.
ABRAMSON: No matter how serious the charges, special victims councils stay with the victim, making sure, for example, that prosecutors don't offer an easy plea bargain. Kirk says the job can also include helping victims deal with disappointment.
KIRK: One of my clients has had an acquittal, and it's devastating.
ABRAMSON: Victims counsels have existed for years in the civilian world, but the idea is a new one for the military and it's raised some touchy legal questions. Some Air Force judges have refused to give these attorneys standing in court. The Air Force JAG office is currently fighting for that right.
And some defense attorneys say the presence of a third party in court could help stack the deck against a defendant. Victor Hansen, a retired Army JAG officer now teaching at New England Law Boston, says providing the victim with an attorney could create a kind of bias.
VICTOR HANSEN: That could be perceived, I think, even by a military panel, that there's already been a determination that the victim is credible before the case even goes to trial.
ABRAMSON: That dispute could be important to the future of this program, although the Air Force says special victims councils can still do a lot outside the courtroom. Initial surveys show that victims have been pretty happy with this new service, but it will be much harder to prove that this program will convince more victims to report crimes, and it may be harder still to show that it can help reduce the number of assaults. Larry Abramson, NPR News.