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NEWS | May 4, 2022

AKNG Sexual Assault Response coordinator receives DoD award for exceptional sexual assault response and victim assistance

By 1st Lt. Balinda O’Neal Alaska National Guard Public Affairs

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month may be recognized officially only in April but it took year-round dedication for one non-traditional, compassionate advocate to be recognized as the very best in a large field of professionals dedicated to sexual assault response and victim assistance.

Ashley Shelton, the Alaska National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters Sexual Assault Prevention and Response coordinator was named the Department of Defense’s 2022 Liz Blanc Exceptional Sexual Assault Response Coordinator of the Year for the National Guard.

Since 2009, DoD has annually recognized one SARC from each military service and National Guard whose innovative achievements contributed to unique and exceptional victim response within the military community.

Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, the adjutant general for the AKNG, nominated Shelton for her remarkable impacts and leadership of the AKNG SAPR program, and superior support to military and civilian members, local and national reserve component organizations, and several remote communities dispersed across the state.

“Ashley demonstrates unparalleled commitment, enhancing victim response beyond initial reach to aid our victims and survivors,” said Saxe. “Her vision and community engagement contribute to the inclusive environment which impacts all of our members, both military and civilian.”

SARCs play a pivotal role in the Defense Department’s SAPR program. When any service member reports a sexual assault, the SARC addresses the victim’s immediate safety needs, connects the victim to resources and assigns a victim advocate to assist throughout the medical, investigative and legal processes.

Since November 2018, Shelton has served as the AKNG JFHQ SARC. She previously served as the Louisiana National Guard’s victim advocate coordinator for five years after retiring from the LANG after 20 years of service as a personnelist in both the Army and Air Guard. 

Shelton says the same desire to impact soldiers and airmen’s well-being in the personnel career field helped guide her to counseling and ultimately victim advocacy.
 
“I realized there was a need for mental health professionals right after 9/11 and decided to get my undergraduate degree in psychology with the intent of becoming a counselor,” said Shelton, who also holds a master’s degree in military psychology from Adler University and is a Level IV DoD-Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program credentialed victim advocate with over 18,500 hours of experience in victim advocacy.

Shelton first heard about the DoD’s SAPR program in 2008 and joined the program in 2013 while still serving with the LAANG.

“I’m not doing counseling, but I feel like I found my calling,” said Shelton. “I’ve always wanted to take care of our soldiers and airmen, and I get to do that every day.”

“Ashley bleeds teal,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Wilson, the command senior enlisted leader for the AKNG, referencing the known color that demonstrates a sign of support for sexual assault survivors. "Her passion to enhance victim assistance and response efforts helped foster readiness and resilience of our professionals serving Team Alaska."

Both Saxe and Wilson noted her relentless pursuit for opportunities that advance the psychological health, safety, and self-determination of Alaska Guardsmen.

“She organized an incident response group to identify reporting barriers, challenge assumptions and create ideas to prevent and reduce the precursors of intimate and domestic violence,” said Wilson. “Ashley is also well known for her impact on victim comfort and restoration through the positive effects of her therapy dog program.”

Shelton is currently in the process of training the Alaska Army Guard’s second SAPR Therapy Dog – a four-month-old fawn Bullmastiff named Eris – after initiating the therapy aide program with Nyx, a brindle-furred Bullmastiff who brought love, comfort and stress relief to Guardsmen for more than three years.

Shelton is also working on the way forward for the AKNG SAPR program by focusing on preventing sexual assault and other harmful behaviors. The Army unrolled the new, Integrated Prevention Workforce, or PWF, comprised of specialists in fields such as psychology, sociology, and social work to revamp their current Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program in April.

“The PWF will examine the social factors that lead not to just sexual assaults but also suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence,” said Shelton, who recently completed the DoD SPARX Knowledge Training that focused on creating safe, stable and supportive command environments free from sexual assault. “It takes a holistic approach to violence prevention and everyone in the Alaska National Guard has a critical role to play – it’s not just one person’s responsibility.”

Shelton says that her SAPR team includes other support programs such as family programs, the psychological health team and chaplains. From the adjutant general and senior enlisted advisor to the brigade and wing commanders – all the way down to company and squadron commanders – she credits Team Alaska as the reason for the program’s achievements.

“The program is a success because the Alaska National Guard works together as a comprehensive team – the SAPR team isn’t just made up of SAPR program staff,” said Shelton. “Their willingness to understand and support the program, to learn what trauma response is and the impact it has on our soldiers and airmen and do what they can to help us support survivors, has been a key component of our response success.”

Shelton will be honored by the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office along with the other five recipients representing each of the armed services at a ceremony at the National Capital Region, May 17.
 
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