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Commentary: Every airman has role in preventing sex assaults

Apr. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer writes: 'I expect every airman to be committed to a culture of dignity and respect.'
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer writes: 'I expect every airman to be committed to a culture of dignity and respect.' (Thomas Brown)
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Every April the Air Force recognizes Sexual Assault Prevention and Response month, using it as an opportunity to renew our commitment to treating each other with dignity and respect. I applaud the idea of a month focused on SAPR, but what we really need is everyone’s focus on this critical issue every day.

Sexual assault is a crime and impacts the trust and respect that is integral to our profession. For the Air Force to be successful, we must trust each other. All it takes is one incident of assault to break that bond, but it takes everyone working together to solve the issue.

In the past 18 months we’ve emphasized the importance of treating each other with dignity and respect, and we’ve made progress through a renewed emphasis on training and education. We’ve seen a real difference in areas like the Special Victims Counsel Program, which provides individual legal support to victims of sexual assault and now serves as a model for the Department of Defense. Reporting of sexual assault allegations has increased, which we believe is an indicator of increased trust and confidence in the reporting process. And we’ve also seen an increase in the number of victims that convert to unrestricted reports, which we feel also indicates increased trust and confidence in our system.

But, you won’t find us high-fiving our success. With that success and pride comes the unquenchable need to do more.

None of us should be comfortable with the fact that we have sexual assaults occurring in our Air Force. And none of us should rest until that crime is eliminated; it’s everyone’s responsibility. Sexual predators are determined to carry out this offense and will do so unless each of us steps in and stops it.

We need to “be on the look-out” for those among us who would commit such a horrible crime. A former wing commander, who recently left the Air Force following a series of incidents involving the compromise of integrity, sent a very poignant note to his airmen on his last day in command. I was struck by the sentence that read, “If only one person had stood up and did or said something, the situation would have ended differently.”

Sexual assault is no different. Bystander intervention can be a game changer. We need every airman to be willing to step forward when a situation starts heading in a bad direction. We need every airman to be part of the solution. I know that takes courage, but I also know our airmen possess it because I see it every day.

As we participate in SAPR month activities I offer a few thoughts for reflection. First, this battle against sexual assault is a marathon, not a sprint. This is not a program or a campaign that will go away in a few months — consider it an enduring effort that serves to honor the dignity and respect of all airmen. Second, airmen must be good wingmen and watch each others’ backs.

Let those around you know that sexual assault will not be tolerated. Start by taking responsibility for your workplace, and do not tolerate inappropriate or degrading remarks or the display of sexually explicit or suggestive materials.

I appreciate what every airman does in service to our nation. As I have always said, “Every airman counts,” and I am relying on each one. From the time they first put on their uniform until the time they leave the Air Force, I expect every airman to be committed to a culture of dignity and respect. We owe it to each other to honor the sacred bond of trust that unites us as airmen in our United States Air Force. Don’t let each other down. ■

Gen. Larry Spencer is Air Force Vice Chief of Staff.

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