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Staff Sgt. Thomas Doscher,
SOUTHWEST ASIA --
There were 565 reports of sexual assault in the Air Force in 2007, 1.6 for every 1,000 Airmen, and those were just the ones brave enough to step forward and report them. In July, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania called sexual assaults in the military a "scourge" that needed to be eliminated, and Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley has called them, "blue-on-blue violence, and we cannot accept it."
But no matter how high-ranking a person is, what they say about sexual assaults cannot match what the average Airman can do about them just by being proactive.
Sexual assaults are among the most repugnant crimes a person can commit upon another, and the 386th Sexual Assault Response Coordinator wants every Airman on the Rock to know that they are the first line of defense when it comes to protecting fellow Airmen against sexual assaults.
"We want all of our Airmen to be proactive bystanders, and when they see something going on in their work sections or at the community centers or where ever they are, when they see something that's not quite right, that they're proactive bystanders and step in," said Lt. Col. Denise Thompson, 386th Chief of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.
As the Rock's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Thompson is responsible for implementing the Depart of Defense's policies in regards to preventing sexual assaults. But as the only Air Force SARC serving several units scattered across the country, she said Airmen need to keep their eyes open and be ready to intervene, and that's what she teaches at her SARC briefings.
"I talk to Airmen as being part of the prevention solution," she said. "We talk about individuals as bystanders, and bystanders are those individuals who see something going on but don't necessarily step in to prevent something or have something take a different course."
Thompson isn't the only one telling Airmen to step up. In early December, Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, said Airmen could not just step aside and hope everything would turn out okay. They had to get involved.
"We cannot just hope for the right outcome," Schwartz said. "This requires activism on all our parts. The message should be loud and clear that addressing sexual assault is a foremost and direct responsibility of commanders and the collective responsibility of our community of Airmen."
The solution, Thompson said, is for Airmen to step in when they see something going down a dark path.
"If you see two individuals, and they might be saying things that have sexual innuendos or are inappropriate, that's not what we should be doing to one another," she said. "And we don't know if someone is saying those things to see how far they can go or what's the next step they might take. So as a proactive bystander, we are all stepping in and saying, 'You know, that's not as positive as it could be. That's not what we want in our Air Force.'"
The idea might seem prudish to some. But in a deployed environment, Airmen can be especially vulnerable.
"People are in an environment where they come across individuals that they don't know and haven't established relationships with," the SARC said. "So we want to make sure that they continuously have some situational awareness that someone else may be taking advantage of them or may try to take advantage of them."
One of the things Thompson said she fears is that there are people out there who realize this and use it to their advantage.
"We may have individuals who deliberately groom their victims, deliberately trying to find individuals deployed for the first time, who are vulnerable. They befriend them, they have them come to depend on them and then they take advantage of them that way. We're away from home. We're seeking someone we can be friends with. We're seeking some comfort, and they may be more vulnerable to situations that lead to sexual assault."
While preventing a sexual assault is the best one can hope for, Thompson said Airmen also need to be looking for signs that an assault has taken place and not dismiss them.
"When we see someone who is avoiding someone in the work environment or saying, 'I can't go on anymore TDYs with him,' or 'I don't want to work on the project with him,' what is that saying?" she asked. "Are we asking for more information or are we thinking that person is not a team player? When we see changes in behavior at the workplace, are we asking about it? What are we doing to find out what's going on with that individual?"
If Airmen want to do more to help, they can be proactive even further and sign up to become victim's advocates. The course, being offered by the SARC office, requires 40 hours of training, after which they are certified as trained victim's advocates that can work at the Rock and at their home stations.
"They will be given a certificate, so when they go home they're a VA for their home installation and any time they deploy, they can be an asset to the program," Thompson said.
Nine Airmen attended Thompson's first class Jan. 25. Among them was Airman 1st Class Jessica Lamb, 387th Expeditionary Support Squadron, deployed from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The Medical Lake, Wash., native said she wanted to help people who needed it.
"If the situation happened to me, I would want someone to be there for me that knew exactly what to do and had the training that we will," she said. "I just wanted to be that for somebody else, to be a good wingman."
Lamb said she will take the skills she learns in this class and continue to volunteer even if she leaves the Air Force.
Thompson said every Airman can take what they know about sexual assaults when they leave the military and apply them in the civilian world.
"Sexual assaults occur in the civilian community," she said. "So how are our family members being treated at schools and at the work place? What we learn in the military, we can take to our families and friends in the civilian community and be supportive of them."
Lt. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, the office that oversees the Air Force SAPR program, said the success or failure of the program rests with leaders and Airmen willing act when necessary.
"[Sexual Assault Prevention and Response] needs to become part of our institution," he said. "What I hope that your own awareness has increased and will compel you to act, think and lead differently."
Thompson said the willingness to act could make all the difference.
"That's what we as Airmen can do for one another," she said. "Be proactive. Watch what's going on around us, and hopefully, by intervening early, we might stop a perpetrator from committing sexual assault."