Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer has asked airmen for suggestions on how to combat sexual assault. A blog, called Every Airman Counts, has had 50,000 visits since July 15. (Airman 1st Class Erin O'Shea / Air Force)
Airmen want to know more about how to prevent sexual assault — and what to do if it happens to them or someone they know.
In the 2˝ months since the Air Force began asking for input on the military’s sexual assault problem,airmen have said again and again they need more training, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer said.
The call-out came in the wake of a May Defense Department report that showed a 35 percent increase in the number of service members who said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact, from an estimated 19,300 in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012.
At the Air Force’s Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland alone, 33 military training instructors have been accused of sexual misconduct with 67 trainees since summer 2011.
Airmen “say we need to understand what sexual assault is, why it happens, how to talk about it, what victims go through, how to treat them. Victims need to understand how to report. We need to continually reinforce that training,” Spencer told Air Force Times.
Reports of sexual assault in the Air Force were up from 790 in fiscal 2012 to nearly 1,090 in fiscal 2013, Spencer said, and he sees that as a positive sign.
“We think that shows folks have more confidence in the system,” the vice chief said. “We will handle these things appropriately, and the appropriate action will be taken.”
The Every Airman Counts blog, launched July 15 to solicit feedback on the sexual assault problem, has generated nearly 1,000 comments. The site has received 50,000 visits, Spencer said.
In addition to asking for more training, airmen also repeatedly cite a link between alcohol abuse and sexual assault, Spencer wrote in a recent blog post to airmen.
“We hear you and the data shows you are correct. As a result, we have reached out to our [major commands] to gather best practices regarding use of alcohol in the dorms.”
Current Air Force instruction forbids only underage drinking in dormitories, although policy is ultimately up to a base’s commander. In March, the head of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, banned the use and possession of alcohol in and around junior enlisted housing at Ramstein and Kapaun Air Station, Stars and Stripes reported.
Twenty-six of the 29 sexual assaults reported at the wing in 2012 involved alcohol use by the victim, the attacker or both, the paper reported. Seven of the assaults occurred in Air Force dormitories.
Multiple blog responses also expressed concern about blaming the victim.
“To be clear, we cannot and will not blame the victim!” Spencer wrote. “Our training efforts will ensure every airman understands the toll this trauma exacts on victims and their families.”
Since launching the blog, the Air Force has begun an advanced course for Air Force lawyers and agents with the Office of Special Investigations.
Many of the victims in the sexual misconduct scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland testified at courts-martial they did not come forward and initially lied to investigators because they feared they would be held responsible. It was only after investigators told them they were not at fault that they cooperated.
“For a victim [of sexual assault], it’s a very traumatic experience,” Spencer said. “You really need to understand how to ask the right questions and understand the person hasgone through a life changing event.”
The Air Force will also begin a weeklong capstone course for graduates of basic military training at Lackland that will address sexual assault prevention, among other topics.
“One thing that commanders talked about is how do we prevent [sexual assault] from happening in the first place,” Spencer said. That’s what the capstone course will focus on.
“We slow them down after basic training and before tech school. In general, we talk about every airman counts and every airman deserves dignity and respect, resiliency, life stress, core values, what we expect from them and what they should expect from us. But the focus clearly is on sexual assault prevention and bystander intervention,” the vice chief said. “One thing we learned from the blog — we need to make sure our folks understand what sex assault is and what it’s about it, that we’re not going to tolerate it.”
Spencer said the blog feedback left him more impressed than surprised.
“I get this a lot from airmen: ‘We are really glad you’re doing this.’ They understand how bad this is. They don’t want this to happen. They want this fixed. They want to do everything they can to help.”
Spencer said he believes programs put into place recently — such as providing victims of sexual assault their own attorney — are already making a difference.
About 490 airmen have used the special victims counsel program since its launch in January. Of those, 91 percent say they were very satisfied. Those who have their own attorneys also are more likely to make an unrestricted report, which launches an investigation.