The Air Force continues to grapple with the number of sexual assaults among its members.
In March, Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Harding and other legal officials for the military appeared before a Senate subcommittee to address rape in the services. The hearing was spurred by a general’s decision to overturn a jury’s sexual assault verdict on a U.S. Air Base in Aviano, Italy.
Preliminary records show there were nearly 800 reports of sexual assault in 2012, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told lawmakers in January. Pentagon officials suspect many more go unreported.
Military leaders, lawmakers and advocates have long agreed that a culture change needs to happen to encourage servicemen and women to come forward.
Leaders at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, say systemic change can begin at the local level, and they’re letting new recruits take charge.
Dressed casually in civilian clothes, Tiffany Schumker stands in front of a group of a dozen or so college students. They’re actors, and she’s directing a rehearsal for a play that will take place at Wright-Patt.
The play is a teaching tool hosted by a newly formed group of young airmen called Air Force Junior Support, or AFJS. The performance resembles one of those dinner theater murder mysteries, but the crime here is sexual assault.
The program was set up in January at the request of leadership at Wright-Patt. AFJS helps young men and women acclimate to military life, with a focus on sexual assault prevention. Jhosselin Alonzo, 24, wants to raise awareness about sexual assault, but she wants do it in a way that goes beyond the usual military PowerPoint presentation.
“This is one of the really good the ways that we’re going to catch the attention of the young generation,” she says.
The play creates camaraderie and explains what to do in the case of sexual assault. Alonzo says they also want create an atmosphere that removes the fear of reporting.
“It’s intimidating when you have to put a report on a supervisor or something like that,” she says. “You know, a lot of times as young Airmen, we don’t want to just disturb the peace within our work areas, and I think that that would be one reason why a lot of reports aren’t put.”
Col. Cassie Barlow, commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patt, says every incident of sexual assault affects the organization as a whole.
“So we take it very seriously,” she says.
Barlow says another reason cases are unreported is that airmen don’t know enough about sexual assault or where to go for help.
“It’s a very uncomfortable conversation for them, and they start squirm in their seat. It’s kind of like a parent talking to a teenager,” she says. “And I tell them, ‘It’s OK. You can squirm. But we need to make sure that everybody understands exactly what sexual assault is.’ “
Barlow says every new airman at the base gets an orientation on what sexual assault is and how to report it. That information is on banners posted at the gates and magnets in every restroom.
Recently, Wright-Patt underwent a clean-sweep inspection, ridding work areas of any material deemed inappropriate. That’s a step in the right direction, says Rachel Natelson with the Service Women’s Action Network. But, she says, more needs to be done to change a longstanding culture.
“The military … until now, has been allowed to police itself on these issues. And that’s never a good idea. It’s outside accountability that keeps people and organizations and institutions in check,” she says.
The Air Force launched a pilot program in January that provides legal assistance to victims of sexual assault. The program will run for one year, and may be a model for other branches of the military to follow suit.