WASHINGTON — It’s not an overstatement to say the past many years have been challenging for those in the military working to prevent sexual assault and sexual trauma. However, for those who’ve been victimized it has been much worse, and we should never forget that.
The harm in this crime is not just physical; it is emotional, scarring the mental health of our Airmen, often in enduring ways. As an institution, we must foster a culture that nourishes dignity and respect for fellow Airmen. The health of our Airmen and the readiness of our force demands it.
Scandals such as the one at basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, have taught us that those of us in uniform must remain vigilant and supremely committed to addressing and eliminating this crime. From my new vantage point, overseeing Air Force sexual assault prevention and response efforts at the Pentagon, it’s worth noting how our institution has stepped up to meet this challenge in myriad ways.
The renewed focus started with my appointment to lead this team of 31 experts who are truly dedicated to tackling the multidimensional issues surrounding sexual assault and rape occurring in our Air Force. Our team includes research analysts, epidemiologists, mental health professionals, special investigators and others who can help us address root causes and find effective, verifiable and lasting solutions.
My mandate from Gen. Welsh is to initiate broad and sweeping changes that will help the Air Force pursue perpetrators and support victims holistically, with input from Airmen, seasoned sexual assault prevention and response professionals, victim advocacy groups, and incorporating the very best practices outside of military and government.
We also will spend a great deal of time listening to and learning from you, our Airmen, to develop policies with far-reaching and tangible effects.
We realize fixing this problem will not be easy or quick. But we won’t be paralyzed by the size and scope of the challenge. We are already moving out on multiple fronts:
• Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer launched “Every Airman Counts” July 16, a wide-reaching program, the first initiative of which is a blog website where Airmen can talk to their peers and share ideas on how the Air Force can better address this issue. We also will routinely offer web chats with senior leaders and experts in the field of sexual assault and sexual trauma.
• As of July 2, after completing any disciplinary action for sexual assault, commanders must initiate administrative discharge processing for any Airman, officer or enlisted, found to have committed a sexual assault offense.
• Airmen have the right to have a general officer review a case if the Airman believes
the commander’s recommendation for involuntary separation was initiated in retaliation for having made an unrestricted report of a sexual assault within the previous 12 months.
• We are conducting Airmen surveys and focus groups where we will travel to several bases to personally talk to Airmen about their views and perspectives.
• We have already instituted a program to provide trained legal advisers to those who have been victimized. The Special Victims Counsel program is designed to fill gaps that often arise in the wake of sexual assault and rape cases.
• We have begun partnering with sexual assault prevention experts inside and outside the military. One thing I have learned thus far is there is no silver bullet, no quick fix to this problem. The solution requires our total commitment at every level of the chain of command and from each one of you.
• We will continue to educate leaders up and down command chains, using everything from unit level discussions to a planned general officer summit. We all must understand what it takes to identify, and hold accountable, perpetrators of sexual assault and how best to support our Airman survivors.
This isn’t an issue that just affects the very small percentage of perpetrators or victims within our ranks, it affects us all. And we are all part of the solution.
We all must help the Air Force reinforce a culture of dignity and respect, and create an environment that isolates perpetrators and removes them from our ranks.
We will not stop until collectively we solve this issue for the good of our Air Force, our nation, and most importantly, every one of you!
(Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward is director of the Headquarters Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.)