Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Step up to stop sexual assault

by Airman 1st Class Ryan Conroy
31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

4/8/2014 - AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- In an effort to address the growing concern of sexual assault in the Air Force, the month of April is dedicated to sexual assault prevention and response. This year, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, U.S. Air Forces Africa will employ the "Step up, step in" initiative throughout the ranks for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Team Aviano and sexual assault prevention and response leadership are stressing the importance of core values, trusting in one another, taking an active approach in prevention and holding the small number of Airmen perpetuating the circumstances accountable.

"Sexual assault directly impacts our mission readiness as we must have trust in one another," said Brig. Gen. Jon A. Norman, 31st Fighter Wing commander. "Sexual assault also exacts an extraordinary toll on victims and their families. We go into combat together and there can be no hesitation in that trust between our brothers and sisters in arms. Those who commit sexual assault break down this trust and we have no place for that in our service.

"An extremely small percentage of Airmen commit this crime, and we must be part of the solution by improving early intervention, accountability and victim support," added Norman.

Bystanders are encouraged to "step in" during uncomfortable, developing situations to diminish sexual assaults across the board. SAPR leadership cited a "better safe than sorry" ideology when it comes to intervention.

"We don't always know if by acting that we prevented a sexual assault or violent situation, but it is better to intervene and have read the situation wrong than to do nothing and allow an assault to occur," says Jamie Carbajal, 31st Fighter Wing sexual assault and response specialist. "As Airmen, it is our responsibility to step in and take care of each other."

Here, there is a recurrent correlation between sexual assault and the influence of alcohol. In 2013 at Aviano, 85 percent of sexual assaults occurred when alcohol was involved, said Carbajal. When alcohol is involved, perpetrators have a greater ability to target vulnerable victims and have an easier time attacking their credibility.

"When alcohol is a factor, it makes it a risky situation for everyone," said Carbajal. "Bystanders can misread the situation or it may affect their ability to intervene and offenders - we're talking about the repeat offenders who encompass 71 percent of assaults - those offenders use alcohol as a weapon. They prey on those who drink heavily, who may be new to the base or may be young."

Consent is defined by the Air Force as words or overt acts indicating a freely given agreement to the sexual conduct at issue by a competent person. There is no consent where the person is sleeping or incapacitated, such as due to age, alcohol, drugs or mental incapacity.

"One should assume that there is a 'red light' in regards to consent for sexual activity unless the other party verbally gives you the 'green' light,'" said Carbajal. "Knowing that the other person has given consent when alcohol is involved is risky. Consent and sexual behavior should be viewed as a continuum of risk. When individuals have been drinking alcohol and there are no clear indicators that consent has been given, sexual activity becomes extremely risky."

The short-term goal of SAAM is to spread awareness and foster an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward to report and gain support from victim advocates as well as other agencies to promote healing.

Carbajal believes this can be done by breaking down some of the barriers associated with reporting such as the belief that no one will believe them or acknowledge their victimization, environments where misogynistic comments and jokes are acceptable or fear of reprisal from coworkers. The long-term goal is to eliminate sexual assault altogether.

Victim advocacy is a critical component of the program, and base-level volunteers are the key to its success. Base SAPR members recruit, screen, interview and select Airmen who, once trained, will serve as victim advocates at their installation. They support victims of sexual assault and ensure that they are not alone as they go through the response, recovery and accountability process.

Swift, decisive response to an assault and holding perpetrators accountable is the basis for program credibility, said Carbajal.

"Empathetic, supportive response to a victim is the first step toward their healing, but holding perpetrators accountable for their crime is the critical final piece of the program. Sexual assault is a crime, and criminals must be prosecuted. When we hold perpetrators accountable, it helps victims move forward, and sends the clear message to all that sexual crimes will not be tolerated," said Carbajal.

For more information about SAPR programs, including how to volunteer to be a victim's advocate, call 632-7272.

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