Honest answers to sexual assault myths

by Maj. Gen. Gina Grosso Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response director

WASHINGTON — Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month has come to a close. I want to take the opportunity to address three persistent myths regarding the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program: a commander’s ability to start, stop or otherwise hinder a sexual assault investigation; which agencies can take a sexual assault report; and the number of sexual assaults that take place when the victim and the perpetrator are in the same unit.

The first myth among the general public and within the Air Force is that commanders decide on whether or not allegations of sexual assault made by their subordinates will be investigated. This is simply not true — Air Force commanders are required by Air Force policy to immediately refer all sexual assault allegations to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, which is required to investigate all sexual assault allegations.

Commanders have no say over whether AFOSI investigates a sexual assault allegation or any other criminal matter within AFOSI’s investigative jurisdiction. AFOSI agents operate independently from the Air Force’s traditional chain of command, reporting instead through AFOSI’s own command structure.

Air Force policy also dictates that the AFOSI commander notify the Secretary of the Air Force in writing of any instance in which a commander, or any other Air Force member, attempts to impede an investigation or limit the use of investigative techniques through the use of their authority. The Secretary of the Air Force and the Department of Defense inspector general are the only individuals outside AFOSI who may direct an agent to conduct or not conduct specific investigative activities or to close an investigation.

The second myth that persists is that sexual assault victims wishing to make a report must go through their commander, supervisor or law enforcement channels first.
A victim can go directly to Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, SAPR Victim Advocates or health care providers. These professionals regularly receive both restricted and unrestricted reports and are available to help victims navigate through either reporting option.

In addition, Special Victims Counsel is available to all sexual assault victims. SVCs are military attorneys whose sole job is to advocate on behalf of sexual assault victims. These specialized lawyers can help victims gain a better understanding of the investigative and legal system processes. If a sexual assault victim chooses to participate in the military justice process, the SVCs can also represent the victim in court.

The restricted reporting option is for sexual assault victims who wish to confidentially disclose the crime and receive medical treatment and services without triggering the official investigative process or pressing charges against a perpetrator.

Service members who are sexually assaulted and wish to file a restricted report must report the assault to a SARC, a SAPR VA or health care personnel.

The unrestricted reporting option is for sexual assault victims who want law enforcement officials to investigate the assault in order to hold the perpetrator accountable. Once an unrestricted report is made, AFOSI agents investigate each and every reported sexual assault allegation over which the Air Force has jurisdiction. Anyone wishing to file an unrestricted report may report the crime to law enforcement, the chain of command, SARC, SAPR VA or health care personnel.

The third myth is that in every sexual assault case, the victim and the accused share the same commander and that this leads to retaliation within the unit such as a reduction in rank, a decrease in pay or being forced out of the military.
Roughly one in six sexual assault cases involve offenders and victims assigned to the same unit. This can result in unique issues for commanders as they support the victim and the accused. Regardless of the accused or victim unit affiliation, retaliation is not acceptable. Furthermore, retaliation is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Air Force is working hard to ensure that victims of retaliation feel safe reporting such incidents and know where they can go for assistance.

These three persistent myths notwithstanding, the Air Force will continue to offer the best care possible to our sexual assault victims to help them become empowered survivors. Let us all make a concerted effort every day throughout the year to end sexual assault. Every Airman can and must make a difference when it comes to bringing awareness and preventing this crime in the Air Force and in our communities.