HANDOUT PHOTO: U.S. Air Force Capt. Maribel Jarzabek, a special victim’s counsel who represents victims of sexual assault, briefs victim advocates at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

It took the Air Force to change — to radicalize, really — Maribel Jarzabek. Specifically, it took the Air Force lawyer serving in the newly created role of “special victims’ counsel” to become convinced that sexual assault cases cannot be fairly handled under the existing rules.

“This job has changed my life,” Jarzabek, 34, told me in a Skype conversation from Germany. She left the military last month, but she still speaks of it in the present tense — “my clients” — and retains its customs, invariably addressing me as “ma’am.”

“I did not believe the ‘Invisible War’ stories,” Jarzabek continued, referring to the 2012 documentary about the prevalence of sexual assault and the military’s inclination for rug-sweeping over punishment. “I did not believe that this was going on. I heard about it, but I didn’t see it, I didn’t believe it. . . . Ruffle feathers, push boundaries, that wasn’t my intention ever.”

The job of special victims’ counsel began as a pilot program in the Air Force in January 2013; it was replicated military-wide in the 2014 defense authorization bill.

The cynical way to understand the program is as part of the military’s desperate, and so far successful, bid to avoid having sexual assault cases transferred outside the ordinary chain of command, with the ultimate decision about prosecution and punishment entrusted to a commander who may have competing concerns beyond dispensing impartial justice.

The more sympathetic way to view the program is as an important, humanitarian adjunct to a military justice system that, much like its civilian counterpart, does not necessarily put victims’ interests foremost.

Especially in cases of sexual assault, with their sensitive subject matter and the prospect of having private conduct exhumed for public viewing, the notion of having an advocate who can explain the proceedings to a victim and argue on her or his behalf — advising, for example, on whether to turn over cellphones to investigators — makes sense.

What is most disturbing about Jarzabek’s experience as special victims’ counsel is what it suggests about the military’s entrenched culture in handling sexual assault — and the difficulties that could persist even if advocates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) were able to succeed, as I hope they do, in their quest to remove the prosecutions from the chain of command.

Jarzabek, who had been handling a hodgepodge of divorce, consumer and other civil legal counseling, was assigned to the special victims’ program in March 2013. Her first case landed her in the fire. An airman was accused of raping a female sergeant, her client. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin declined to prosecute. But Jarzabek, in a 12-page memo to Franklin, insisted that her client hadn’t received a fair hearing. The case was removed from Franklin, who was already in the middle of a firestorm over his decision to overturn a separate sexual assault conviction.

Shortly afterward, Jarzabek said she received a middle-of-the-night phone call from Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force’s top lawyer, congratulating her on the work and saying, as Jarzabek related in an e-mail to her husband at the time, that he “wasn’t lying when he said he picked the best” to be special victims’ counsel.

But Jarzabek said she quickly began to suffer blowback — and evaluations far below her previous ratings — from supervisors who criticized her for being “too victim-centered.” She had to struggle to ensure that clients were kept informed about the status of their cases; she pushed, at clients’ request, to have the chance to consult directly with the deciding authority, only to be told to drop the issue because there was no such right; and saw clients give up because the process was so lengthy and traumatizing.

Jarzabek said she was also criticized for advocating too zealously on behalf of clients with less-than-slam-dunk cases and warned by superior officers — a useful reminder that the chain of command applies to military lawyers as well — that she needed to keep in mind that she was “just a captain.”

Effectively forced into separation from the Air Force by low performance ratings, Jarzabek, in the closing days of her service, posted a supportive comment about Gillibrand’s proposal on the senator’s Facebook page. As my Post colleague Craig Whitlock reported, that triggered a criminal investigation — ultimately resolved with a verbal warning — into whether she had advocated a “partisan political cause” and undermined public confidence in the Air Force.

Seems to me the Air Force has managed to accomplish that on its own.

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