MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin National Guard chose Monday, the first day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month to formally introduce Falcon, a certified service dog trained to interact with physical and sexual trauma victims who has been assigned to the Wisconsin National Guard's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) team.
But where Falcon is a friendly and welcoming canine, senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders are taking a more aggressive approach regarding sexual assault within its ranks.
"It ought to be fairly simple for an organization like ours, that puts core values at the center of everything that we do," said Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin. "There's just no place in our organization for sexual assault. It really is that simple."
Dunbar and his senior leaders for the Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard made a point of presenting that message to every member of the organization last year. In addition, Gov. Scott Walker will soon sign an amendment to the Wisconsin Code of Military Justice that aligns it more closely with the federal Uniform Code of Military Justice concerning sexual assaults.
"We are, quite simply, deadly serious about sexual assault not being accepted in the Wisconsin National Guard," Dunbar said. "You can trust leadership. I will not look the other way - my leadership will not look the other way, and I trust you will not look the other way.
"We do have a great organization," he continued. "Whatever problems we have in the organization are narrow, and when we find them we will root them out and we will take appropriate action. And you can take that to the bank."
Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the top noncommissioned officer in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, challenged noncommissioned officers to set and maintain the standard.
"Our mission is to focus on creating a professional culture where sexual assault is not tolerated at any level, and victims should feel free to come forward," Shields said. "We decide and we allow things to happen, and we can prevent those things from happening as well. We are the gatekeepers of our organization."
Command Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Cullen, the top noncommissioned officer in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, said the Air Force teaches its Airmen to look out for each other both on and off duty.
"Not even an hour ago I dropped off my son at the Dane County Airport - he's going off to basic training today," Cullen said. "He's going to be part of our organization. I would not have let him, as a parent, join an organization that I did not believe in, that I did not have trust in."
Capt. Robert Brania, the Wisconsin National Guard's sexual assault response coordinator (SARC), explained how his deputy coordinator, 2nd Lt. Amber Garfoot, began exploring animal-assisted therapy techniques and came in contact with the Madison, Wis.-based Custom Canines Service Dog Academy. That organization, at no cost to the Wisconsin National Guard, offered a fully certified service dog for the purposes of outreach and education.
"Aside from the tangible benefits he offers during interaction with victims and survivors, his mere presence creates an avenue for service members to interact with our office in a more informal manner," Brania explained, "creating the opportunity for meaningful discussions about the program that might not otherwise have occurred."
Nicole Meadowcroft, president of Custom Canines, is visually impaired and uses a service dog as her guide dog on a daily basis.
"Needless to say, the dogs change lives in so many ways," she said. "We are so thrilled we are able to collaborate with the Wisconsin National Guard and provide this dog for this incredible service that Falcon is providing."
Perhaps the most moving portion of the presentation came when Staff Sgt. James Austin, a sexual assault victim advocate in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, recited a poem he was inspired to write during advocacy training. The poem was written as a letter from a sexual assault victim to her assailant. The poem begins as the Soldier describes her early days in the military:
But then you came along. Army of the weak infiltrated Army of the strong - a sheep in wolf's clothing, a coward of a man. I trusted you, I had your back, but you dishonored me with your hands. I thought you were my battle buddy -better yet, my friend - but you stand below the values and the ethos for which the Army stands.
You see, I remember that night, I remember the pain. I remember lying there, trying to wash away the feelings out in the rain. I remember wishing you would have killed me that night. But instead I die every day, over and over and over again.
The poem ends with the Soldier gaining coping skills and confirmation from her victim advocate, and finally being able to face the crime committed against her.
In the past year, the Wisconsin National Guard has tripled its complement of sexual assault victim advocates, as well as appointed two judge advocate officers to serve as special victims counsel, and dedicated four trained sexual assault investigators - more than any other state.
"We - the Soldiers, Airmen, employees, families and veterans of the Wisconsin National Guard - have the power to send a clear message," Brania said. "We all stand with survivors and are committed to lead the nation in addressing this issue."