Texas VA reaches out to support victims of sexual assault


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VA military sexual trauma coordinator Melica Wiley checks out a pair of denim jeans with the word survivor written in various languages from around the world on April 24, 2018. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Luis H. Loza Gutierrez)

VA military sexual trauma coordinator Melica Wiley checks out a pair of denim jeans with the word survivor written in various languages from around the world on April 24, 2018. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Luis H. Loza Gutierrez)

In an effort to raise awareness and improve access for victims, VA’s Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System approached Sexual Assault Awareness Month a little differently this year.

“Sexual Assault Awareness Month aims to raise public awareness about sexual assault and abuse and educate individuals and communities on sexual violence prevention.  VA encourages a special focus on military sexual trauma, which is sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment experienced during military service,” said Melica Wiley, the military sexual trauma coordinator for VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System. “[It’s] our opportunity to put VA’s military sexual trauma-related services in the spotlight, to highlight the important things being done locally and nationally to help our survivors recover, and to reach Veterans who may have previously felt like they had nowhere to turn for help.”

Throughout April, VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System got the word out as you might expect — with displays, information tables and participating in local event.  However, the final event was more persona. The clothesline project is a program started in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1990 to address the issue of violence against women. Originally a way for women affected by violence to express their emotions by decorating and displaying a shirt, it has since been adopted to provide male and female victims an outlet for expression.

According to one of the clothesline project coordinators, Dr. Twana Cooks-Allen, 2018 marks the fourth straight year the clothes line has been displayed at the VA’s outpatient clinic in Harlingen, Texas.

However, this year’s clothesline was different than previous displays. This year’s clothesline feature garments made from denim such as uniquely decorated pairs of jeans.

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Dr. Cooks-Allen, who works as a VA psychologist explained the jeans were added the clothesline in observance of Denim Day, which took place on April 25, and is an international event in which people are encouraged to wear denim jeans to raise awareness about rape and sexual assault.

Both Wiley and Cooks-Allen said they hoped that the addition of the denim jeans would create a greater impact among people visiting the clinic.

“I had the opportunity to see the clothesline and it’s an awesome display,” said Veteran Clarivel Garza. The former Army noncommissioned officer said reading the messages on clothing gave her the added motivation to tell others. I told fellow Veterans and coworkers to please take the time to read the messages written on these clothing items. They are truly powerful messages. Kudos to all who were involved in setting up this display.”

This year’s clothes line was on display until May 3.

“We decided to publicly display the clothesline into the first week of May because May is Mental Health Awareness month, and many experiences of sexual trauma and violence result in a person developing mental health issues in the future” said Wiley.

“Survivors don’t need to speak up publicly or even share their experiences of sexual trauma with others to live fulfilling, meaningful lives, but we want to convey that for those who want to speak up, in whatever way is right for them, VA is here to listen,” said Wiley. “We want all Veterans to know that they have the power to write the rest of their story. They decide where they go from here, and that the VA is here to help.”

The VA has military sexual trauma coordinators like  Wiley, who can help Veterans access VA services and programs. For a list of VA military sexual trauma coordinators according to states please click here or visit: https://www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/mstcoordinators.asp

Author

Luis Loza Gutierrez

Luis H. Loza Gutierrez joined the Department of Veterans Affairs in October of 2017 and serves as a public affairs specialist for VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System.

In addition to winning multiple awards as a writer, photographer, illustrator and graphic artist during his more than 10 years in the U.S. Air Force as a public affairs specialist and photojournalist, L.G. (as he was called by his fellow Airmen) also served as a member for the Air Force Honor Guard at the base-level during his last permanent-duty station in North Dakota.

He volunteered to deploy out of cycle twice in a period of less 18 months, the second of which included a six-month tour as a member of the public affairs team at USF-I Headquarters at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

The now retired non-commissioned officer returned home to the Rio Grande Valley in deep South Texas in November of 2015, and feels enthusiastic and honored to continue to serve his fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms as a member of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.