I am a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant deployed to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. I was recently featured in an article that highlighted me and my sister, a U.S. Air Force captain, about our experience being deployed together. The article, the first of a three-part series, highlighted deployed service members who are also family. The response from the military community that followed the article once it posted online was the direct opposite of what I, or my sister, could ever have expected.
My sister and I were excited to see our sisterly bond connected to our military careers and posted the article on our personal social media timelines. We didn’t realize until later that the article was also circulating common military “troll” pages. These troll pages’ main purpose is to post memes and dark, sarcastic humor about a base, an organization or the military in general. Al Udeid is no stranger to this concept — the Facebook page “People of the Deid” (POTD) began as a forum of base information for service members, current and past, but quickly turned into a forum that service members now use as a way to humorously get through their deployments. This sounds great in theory, but it can breed a certain culture of mocking, harassing humor that promotes gossip and rumor generation — and that’s exactly the page my article ended up on.
Of all the things that could have angered me about being posted on the POTD Facebook page, it was surprising what actually got to me. I wasn’t surprised by the sexual harassment that my sister and I endured through the comment thread, not the disrespectful assumptions that claimed I slept with my boss to get the article (a comment, ironically, made by another woman), nor the lewd GIFs that alluded to my sister and I engaging in sexual acts. No, none of that surprised or angered me. I’m used to those. I’m conditioned to expect those anytime a woman on the cover of a story that doesn’t include some overt, heroic act is plastered onto Facebook. That’s the unfortunate culture that we have created — one where women must earn their keep by tolerating sexual harassment.
What I didn’t realize angered me until a few days after the post was made, was the victim-blaming that found its way into this positive, accurate article. There was victim-blaming from people in my career field, people close to me and professionals in the Air Force. The common question wasn’t, “Why are these people commenting like this? Why are they sexualizing two family members in the service?” The questions people asked were, “Whose idea was it to post this article on social media? Whose idea was it to PUBLISH this for the world to see?” And my all-time favorite, “Why are you putting these women at risk for harassment by posting on POTD?”
Until we are as outraged by the lewd, sexualizing of our military members across all mediums, to include in-person and within the unit, we aren’t going to progress as a strong, healthy force. If we aren’t all respected as humans rather than objects, how are we supposed to trust the person to our left and to our right in austere environments? We’re in a new age of warfare and military lifestyle — we cannot be the world’s greatest force when the members of every branch are sexualized, discriminated against, raped and even murdered — all under the radar of our own leadership and peers.
Despite all of the disgusting comments that asked if my sister and I “did anything else together for fun,” alluding to sexual acts together, there were more people against the harassment in the comments than those encouraging it. That was a welcome surprise to me, something I didn’t expect to happen at all. I’ve been in the Air Force for almost five years and I’ve been on the social media team for my office almost the entire length of my enlistment — my faith in humanity was extremely low seeing all the messages and comments we receive as a professional, military organization. But to see men and women, from military backgrounds or not, coming to my and my sister’s defense against these abusers using us as their own entertainment — which is really just a humorous cover for their disdain of their own military past — surprised me and reinvigorated my goal to complete my mission here with strength. My leadership here supported our positive message to the world, my leadership back at home at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, supported us, even the U.S. Air Force’s top enlisted leader at the time, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, shared our post with a message of pride. I was shocked, but happy to see hope of a force leaning towards positive change.
We have an accountability issue in the military — for such an integrity-based force, we do an inadequate job of holding ourselves accountable for our words and demeanor. The focus of this commentary and my personal response to the sexual harassment I’ve endured online is to hopefully instill a culture of real zero tolerance. We must stop allowing such micro-aggressions to pass as humor in the workplace or online, hidden behind a Facebook profile. We must continue to police one another and not accept “jokes” as a valid reason for mistreatment and toxic work culture. Everyone must be accountable for their actions, but also hold their peers accountable for theirs. We are all responsible for the culture we collectively create.
The bystander is just as guilty as the abuser in situations of micro-aggressions and lack of professional boundaries. Be like the Facebook commenters and the others who spoke out against harassment on POTD. They demanded top military leadership to take note of what their troops, veterans and community were condoning and ensuing — a toxic culture that points fingers at the victim. Continue to be that change, keep having those uncomfortable confrontations with micro-aggressors and “good old boys” in the military community. We are no longer accepting humor as a cover for your toxic culture. We are demanding that people communicate their issues correctly, take accountability for their actions and, most of all, we as a community are demanding positive change.
Staff Sgt. Heather Fejerang is a broadcast journeyman at the 6th Air Refueling Wing located at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida. She is responsible for managing social media operations on behalf of the 6th Air Refueling Wing, the base host unit, as well as providing video documentation and support for the wing and its tenant units including U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.
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