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MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, ALA. — The Air Force recognizes it has a problem with sexual abuse, and that the force isn’t immune to it.
The only way to handle the problem is to “admit it, address it and be actively involved in fixing it,” said Col. Trent Edwards, 42nd Air Base Wing Commander at Maxwell.
Edwards’ comments came after a survey released this month showed about one out of five military women say they were victims of unwanted sexual contact by another service member since joining the military. The information came from a Pentagon health survey conducted in 2011.
No numbers from the Air Force were provided, although in 2011 the Defense Department received 3,192 reports of sexual assault, and the Air Force received 614 reports of sexual assault.
While Edwards said Maxwell does deal with sexual abuse cases, he was hesitant to provide numbers from the base.
“I certainly don’t want to put out any type of number in which a victim would be led to believe, ‘Oh, they know it’s me,’” he said. “Sexual assault is a crime and we treat it as a crime. The first thing we’re doing as the U.S. Air Force is recognizing we have a problem.”
Sexual assault has to be discussed, and discussed frequently, so the people perpetrating the crimes are squeezed out and the victims feel supported, Edwards said.
“We recruit our members from society. As a result, some [people] bring their experiences into the Air Force with them,” he said. “We are a kaleidoscope of culture and background and experiences. We have zero tolerance for sexual assault and everyone must be treated with respect and dignity.”
The sexual abuse rates in the survey appear to be significantly higher than similar survey findings from 2008, although the Pentagon changed the way it conducted the 2011 survey of 34,000 troops, so comparisons are difficult.
Still, questions about unwanted sexual conduct were virtually identical in both surveys, and in 2008, 11 to 12 percent of female soldiers and sailors said they were victims of unwanted touching, along with 17 percent of women who were Marines.
About 29,000 troops were surveyed in 2008.
The results surface at a time when a growing number in Congress are concerned about sexual assault and harassment in the military, and the low rate of criminal complaints versus a high rate of sexual assaults recorded in anonymous surveys such as the one released Monday.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chair of the personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is working on legislation that would remove from the chain-of-command the decision to file charges in a felony case, including rape or other sexual assault.
Gillibrand says that victims of sexual assault in the military hesitate to complain because they fear retribution or skepticism from commanders.
“That’s a tough question,” Edwards said, when asked whether he thought this to be true at Maxwell, “because I can’t assume to know. If there are more reported sexual assaults, it could be that people are trusting the system. Sometimes, people report something that happened a year ago, or at another base, and for whatever reason, they don’t report it at that time.
“Once they trust the system, they realize they’ll be treated with trust and dignity.”
With all crimes, Edwards said the Air Force states: “Not in my unit, not in my Air Force, not on my watch.”
To help victims, Maxwell-Gunter has a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office, and also more than 30 other people around Maxwell and Gunter who are trained as victim advocates, and who would, at various times, be on-call to respond to a victim who reports a sexual assault.
Also readily available is Standing Together Against Rape, a program of The Lighthouse Counseling Center.
Cheryl Hardley, program director for STAR, said it collects DNA from sexual abuse victims in the military and also provides a 24-hour hotline for anyone who wants to talk. For further counseling, STAR refers people to the Family Sunshine Center.
“For the military, I work closely with the [Sexual Assault Response Coordinator], and they are members of our Sexual Assault Response Team,” Hardley said.
That team meets bi-monthly, and includes not only military representatives, but representatives from other organizations, such as universities, the state department of forensic science, and law enforcement from Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore, Butler, Lowndes and Crenshaw counties.
“We all meet and make sure we’re on the same page to make sure we are working together,” Hardley said. “But if the military has a rape victim and they want a forensic exam, I will get a call from SARC. We provide a forensic exam, and it is picked up by a military official for processing of the evidence.”
Also, “bystander intervention training” takes place across the Air Force.
“I track it, because it is a 100 percent requirement,” Edwards said. “People who may be aware of, or see something, they need to have the courage to come forward and report it ... to their commander, their first sergeant or to [SAPR].”
Edwards said the Air Force takes the issue very seriously. He said commanders are charged with maintaining good order and discipline in their units so that unit morale and welfare stay high in order to accomplish their mission.
“This is more than just overt comments,” he said. “This is the nuances and innuendos and things that start out small, and if they are left unchecked they adversely affect morale and discipline, and ultimately it undermines the readiness and mission of our U.S. Air Force.”