Tag Archives: sexual assault

Sexual assault survivor: One Airman’s story

By a Survivor

Sexual assault is a hot topic — one addressed in annual training and at commander’s calls throughout the Air Force — yet the details of victims’ stories are seldom mentioned. This is understandable. These crimes against service members are intensely personal. Also, as many survivors have learned, listeners don’t always know how to respond appropriately, which can make sharing one’s story awkward, even painful.

This is unfortunate. As humans we are drawn to stories. We reflect upon them and even internalize some of their values, ideas and attitudes. Stories communicate with extraordinary effectiveness, enabling us to learn not only from personal experience but also from others’ experiences. Are we missing out on a potentially powerful tool in the world of sexual assault prevention? Perhaps calling on survivors to bravely share their stories holds real potential for making those serving alongside them more aware of sexual assault and of ways they can prevent it in their spheres of influence. To that end, here is my story.

Like most men I know, I never really thought much about sexual assault. I saw the issue as predominately a female problem that only happened to males under highly unusual circumstances and in unusual settings, such as prison. So, each year I endured the Air Force’s mandatory sexual assault training but never examined people in my life for indicators of predatory behavior, or spent any time considering issues like stalking, grooming, or consent. Little did I know that, like many other victims of both genders, I was oblivious to the impending threat until it was too late. Continue reading Sexual assault survivor: One Airman’s story

I will no longer be a victim

By Skytina Felder-Jones
8th Fighter Wing

SAPR: A silent victim is a victim foreverAs a young child, the horrors of sexual violence arrested my sense of safety, security and the sanctity of my home — robbing me of self-worth, my voice and the development of healthy boundaries.

At the age of four I became a guilt-riddled, withdrawn and a painfully shy child. I was frightened of the world outside of my mother and was petrified by almost all men.

From that time until the age of 19, my self-esteem and self-worth told me I was damaged, unlovable and had nothing of value to say, so I kept my mouth shut most of the time.

Spiritual growth, counseling and a strong network of family and friends helped me flourish. I found my voice, my worth and developed a strong locus of internal control. I was able to achieve my academic and professional aspirations.

I was finally more than that helpless little girl. My faith in humanity had been restored — and then it happened. He came into my life and threatened to undo the lifetime of healing and restoration that seemed as if it only just begun.

No, he was not a stranger. He was my tormentor, my boogeyman: a field grade officer who happened to be my boss. “We are on the same team,” I thought to myself. We have the same goals. “Why can’t you see me as a professional vice something for your own sexual gratification? This cannot be happening to me.”

Most cases of sexual harassment and assault happen subtly. There is a journey, a refined process that offenders and perpetrators take potential targets through. My situation was not any different.

It began with intrusion.

My offender initiated this process with sexual remarks, inappropriate comments and at one point grabbed my arm and instructed to me to serve him dinner at a command Christmas party. I managed to squeak something barely audible as I looked around to see if anyone noticed and would come to my aid. In retrospect, I believe we were all flabbergasted and did not know what to do.

I was embarrassed and frustrated that I did not stand up for myself. At that moment, I was 4-years-old all over again and could not find my voice. My offender, on the other hand, was overtly testing my boundaries to see what he could get away with. My lack of response emboldened him.

As time went by, my supervisor’s behavior toward me became more blatant and frequent. I began to dismiss what was happening. I would tell myself he doesn’t mean anything by it. I became convinced if I ignored the behavior, he would get the picture that I was not interested and his advances were unwanted.

I eventually came to accept he was not going to stop and I would continue to be uncomfortable; just another unpleasant part of life. But, I was strong enough to deal with it, so I thought. We were at the second phase in the process: desensitization.

So now we are four months into incessant and unwanted sexual advances. I was summoned several times to his office under the guise of a work-related task, only to have himself and his male counterparts look me over, ask personal questions and make sexual comments as I exited the room.

I was put on display. It was horribly degrading. The beginning of the end of this hell started when my boss squeezed my upper thigh under the table at a command function in a crowded room.

I was ashamed, hurt and embarrassed. I left the event and went to the equal opportunity office, because I knew I had to do something. I told them of my ordeal and they were more than willing to help me. I asked to be given time to think about what course of action to take. I was leaving for a five-week temporary duty assignment the next day.

I thought I would have a reprieve from the harassment and the potential for another assault. I was wrong. My offender sent emails during my TDY. He called me and basically told me when I returned, it was time to go to the next level and it was no longer an option.

I did not sleep that night. I was scared. I returned to work after my TDY and avoided my supervisor/offender at all costs. I ignored his phone calls. I would peak out my door before I left my office to ensure I did not bump into him.

I would correspond with him by email only. Finally, I was summoned to his office and was asked why I was avoiding him. He informed me I needed to make it a point to see him every day.

The following day I was summoned into his office, again, to be put on display. As I greeted the other male field grade officer present, he openly chided me and I was instructed not to speak to another man. According to him, I was his property.

No longer was I a highly educated professional or valued member of the team. I was there solely for my offender’s benefit. I felt less than human, weak and powerless. I was no longer a 34-year-old capable and confident woman. I had transformed completely into that helpless girl from my childhood.

Not only did my offender interrupt my peace at work, but he invaded my dreams and my thoughts and pervaded every aspect of my life. I became paralyzed and consumed by fear. The quid pro quo in the form of threats relevant to my performance appraisals and job kept me in a constant state of flux. I was a prisoner in my office and in my home.

I was living the hell many of my previous clients, also former victims of violence had described to me time and time again. I was now reliving which propelled me to join the Navy in hopes of escaping my past.

The final breaking point came when my offender began to actively take steps to eliminate my job. Upon my return from my TDY, I found out he had withheld paperwork to extend my job. The organization’s budget personnel hounded him for seven months to submit the paperwork.

Wittingly, the harassment began during the same timeframe. I decided I was no longer going to be a silent victim. I went to the director of our section and notified him of what was going on. I informed him I intended to file a report with the EO office.

The investigation began that day. Asserting the protections that are guaranteed to every military and civilian personnel is not an easy process. During the investigative process, I felt as though I was laid bare and the entire world could see my fear, my shame, my cowardice and my trauma.

I had to tell every sordid detail of my ordeal over and over. It was such an intrusive but necessary process. The investigation completely polarized our office. I was ostracized by people whom I valued and trusted. The morale and the foundation of our once solid team had was decimated. We never recovered. I was blamed by some and heralded as a heroine by others.

I was so afraid no one would believe me. After a 45-day investigation, the charges in my complaint were substantiated and I was relieved, but I did not feel vindicated. My offender’s supporters impugned my character, refused to cooperate with me regarding work-related tasks and completely shunned me. I did find solace in the fact my offender would no longer be able to prey upon the two other women who came forward during my case.

In the end, I was battered and bruised. I had displaced anger and found it difficult to trust any leader. I was angry at myself. The nightmares continued and the world was no longer a safe place for me. I did seek help, but I had gone so far within, it was difficult for anybody to reach me.

I knew I allowed him to change who I was. I was no longer the sweet, jovial and passionate woman I always was. I became a defensive, aggressive and mean woman — a woman I did not recognize.

A year later I saw him as I was leaving a doctor’s appointment and lowered my eyes and head. The voice I was regaining rose up and said, “You have nothing to be ashamed of.” I looked my offender in his eyes until he lowered his head and eyes. He did the walk of shame that day.

At that moment, I was released from the burden of trauma I was carrying around with me daily. I no longer have nightmares and am learning to trust my leaders and people in general again. I smile and laugh daily. That mean girl is gone for good.

The help of the chaplaincy, my spiritual support, victim advocates and mental health provided the way for my peace and love of life again. Not only did they validate my reality, but they brought stability and safety into my world that was turned upside down.

Therapeutic work in counseling provided for healing and restoration. I highly encouraged all victims to seek help. Strength and resilience rests upon our ability to reach out to others in our time of need. Shame belongs solely to the perpetrator.

As I mentioned earlier, there are three phases in the process of sexual harassment and assault. I spoke of intrusion and desensitization: the last phase is isolation. Isolation is the goal of every perpetrator in order to accomplish a full-fledge sexual assault. I am eternally grateful my ordeal never led to isolation.

I am empowered because of knowledge. I am empowered because I am no longer silent. I am no longer a victim.

PHOTO: Skytina Felder-Jones poses for a photo to communicate her stance on sexual assault Mar. 12, 2014, at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. Felder-Jones shared her experience with others so they are aware of their options and that there is life after an assault. Felder-Jones is an 8th Fighter Wing Resilience Program specialist and facilitator. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Senior Airman Armando A. Schwier-Morales/Released)

Every Airman Counts: Treating each other with dignity and respect

By Gen. Larry O. Spencer
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff
Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff, encourages Airmen to get involved with “Every Airman Counts”. The initative is designed to foster communication between Airmen and senior leaders about sexual assault prevention and response.
When I was a young Airman, during the heat of an intense intramural flag football game, a fellow Airman, who was frustrated that he could not stop me from advancing the ball, yelled the “N” word out loud. I was shocked and confused. Having been raised in Southeast Washington, D.C., I was certainly no stranger to harsh language or “trash talk.” However, this was different, and it literally hurt. I thought I had left that type of behavior behind me. I was an American Airman, and I didn’t expect that kind of verbal attack from a fellow Airman.

You must understand that growing up as I did, I never heard terms like dignity, respect, integrity, service or excellence. I was not a bad person and my parents taught me to respect myself and others; however, this notion of devotion to a larger purpose, to institutional values, was new to me. The Air Force stood for something and I liked it. Those words meant I could always trust and depend on my fellow Airmen. But at that moment, on that field, those values had been violated, and I felt let down.

Standing in the bright lights that lit-up the football field, I was at a loss…Then something remarkable happened. Several Airmen, on both sides of the ball, spoke up — forcefully. They chastised the offender and made it clear they did not approve of his outbursts or attitude. The referee, who was an NCO, also stepped forward and not only ejected him from the game, but directed him to report to his first sergeant the following day. The next day, not only did my teammates (on both teams) go out of their way to apologize for this single Airman’s behavior, but the Airman who committed the act also personally apologized.

As an officer, some of the best experiences in my life have been the opportunities I’ve had to command. I especially enjoyed my squadron command because it was in the midst of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and my entire unit was singularly focused. That period was particularly taxing because in addition to my squadron commander duties, I was also responsible for making sure that Airmen deployed properly and airplane loading plans were followed precisely.

One busy night on the flightline, a young Airman approached me and said she was being harassed by several male Airmen. She went on to say that this wasn’t the first time the harassment had occurred and typically she would just “grin and bear it.” However, since we were literally preparing for war, she did not want to be distracted and just wanted the behavior to stop. Although she was not assigned to my squadron, we quickly and decisively dealt with those involved. Several months later I ran into the female Airman at the gym. I reminded her about her words, “grin and bear it,” and asked why she put up with that behavior without speaking out. She explained that she so badly wanted to be part of the squadron that she remained silent as not to “make waves.”

Her story bothered me a lot. For a young Airman to feel like she had to “go along to get along” by accepting behavior that was repulsive was unacceptable to me. We were part of a premiere Air Force fighter wing gearing-up for war. We had to trust each other and have each other’s back. In my way of thinking, treating each other with dignity and respect was a given—unfortunately, in her case it was not.

Dignity and respect are not just words. Merriam Webster defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed;” and respect as “a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important and should be treated in an appropriate way.” We all want to be respected by others…both as human beings and as military professionals. During my career, I’ve witnessed Airmen treating others with disrespect and dishonor. As vice chief of staff, I cringe when I read reports of sexual assaults in our Air Force. I personally know the hurt of racially charged words, and I have seen and witnessed the hurt associated with victims of sexual assault. Airmen who act in this manner are not representative of the Air Force I serve, and I won’t tolerate it. Neither should you.

I know the vast majority of our Airmen don’t act that way. They understand the importance of fostering a culture of dignity and respect, and they live it every day. To those Airmen, I say thank you for living up to Air Force core values, and I ask you to join me in re-doubling our efforts to NOT TOLERATE those who don’t live up to those standards. Airmen don’t sexually harass or assault fellow Airmen (or anyone for that matter). Airmen don’t care about their fellow Airman’s race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. We focus on character, commitment, professional competence and leadership. And, if we run into that small percentage of Airmen who violate those standards, we speak up and report that behavior to the appropriate officials.

For those who cannot or will not live up to Air Force standards, I offer a simple phrase: “shape up or ship out.” If we have members who won’t subscribe to integrity, service and excellence; we don’t want them.

We all signed up to be part of the best Air Force the world has ever seen. The Air Force didn’t become the best by accident. Dedicated, committed Airmen who live by our core values each and every day made it that way. You and I now have a sacred responsibility to not only keep us the best but to make the Air Force even greater. That’s a big responsibility, but it starts by treating everyone with dignity and respect and remembering that every Airman counts.

Photo: Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff, encourages Airmen to get involved with “Every Airman Counts.” The initative is designed to foster communication between Airmen and senior leaders about sexual assault prevention and response.

VCSAF responds to Air Force SAPR blog comments, feedback

130606-F-FF749-039In the commentary below, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Larry Spencer, gives direct feedback to Airmen on comments and suggestions posted on the service’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response blog.

Since launching July 15, more than 900 comments have been posted on the blog, with more than 500 coming on the first posting.

“’We can’t fix this issue sitting in the Pentagon,’” said General Spencer in the inaugural SAPR blog post. “’We need each and every one of you to get engaged in addressing this issue… this crime, and it is a crime. We need to know exactly where you feel the issues are, so we can address them with laser focus. I need every one of you helping us find ways to ensure dignity and respect are prevailing qualities in our daily relationships.’”

Today, Spencer wants Airmen to know their voice has been heard by senior leadership and suggestions are being acted upon.

Gen. Larry Spencer
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff

Once again, you answered the call and responded to our request to hear from you – thank you.

More than two months ago, I launched the “Every Airman Counts” campaign in an effort to communicate directly with Airmen on how best to address the issue of sexual assault prevention and response within our organization. One of the tools we developed is a blog to stimulate discussion and for you to share your never-ending innovative suggestions, ideas, or concerns with each other and senior leaders. Let me tell you – your senior leaders read the blog daily and we appreciate your candid comments.

As of today, we have received roughly 900 comments on the blog. What’s more, we have had approximately 46,000 visits to the site. What this tells me is that you care – you are taking time to read about a problem that affects us all and give us suggestions on how to fix it.

There have been a lot of great comments – too many to discuss in this article – but I felt it was appropriate to give you some feedback and to highlight some recurring themes and key take-aways senior leaders have gleaned from the blog.

Key take-aways
First, a number of you mentioned the need for more focused training at all levels, but most importantly, for commanders and front-line supervisors. You’re also telling us we need realistic training with realistic scenarios and small group discussions for the training to be effective. We’ve taken some initial actions on each of these suggestions and will continue to expand and intensify our efforts.

Another issue you raised is that alcohol abuse is commonly linked to sexual assault. We hear you and the data shows you are correct. As a result, we have reached out to our MAJCOMs to gather best practices regarding use of alcohol in the dorms, and may explore different options to see what makes sense to implement across the Air Force.

Next, several blog entries highlighted victim blaming as a concern. To be clear, we cannot and will not blame the victim! Our training efforts will ensure every Airman understands the toll this trauma exacts on victims and their families. If you haven’t been to the blog to watch the videos of our three extremely strong survivors, I encourage you to do so – it is heart wrenching, but will truly help you understand the spectrum of trauma victims endure. It took a lot of courage for these women to come forward and tell their stories, but they did so to help others and help our Air Force.

Action taken
Based on your blog entries and feedback from focus groups, we have several other initiatives underway as well. On August 1st we implemented an advanced course on how to deal with sexual assault, and have trained more than 96 OSI agents and legal representatives to date. Additionally, we are developing a Basic Military Training Transition program where our newest Airmen will spend one-week in a classroom environment between BMT graduation and technical school. Here they will learn about a variety of issues to include the Air Force culture and what’s expected of them as Airmen. Finally, this month, we will share final outcomes of convicted court cases with the Air Force Times so all of our Airmen can have visibility on the final disposition of those convicted of this crime. Additionally, synopses of sexual assault convictions from 2010 to present can be found at http://www.afjag.af.mil/sexualassaultprosecution.

The Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Staff, and I are fully committed to eradicating the crime of sexual assault from our Service – but we can’t do this alone. We need each and every one of you focused on this problem. Every Airman Counts means we treat each other with dignity and respect. Thank you again for helping us work this issue – we’re looking for “game changers” so keep those ideas coming.

Thank you also for all you do to make our Air Force the best the world has ever seen. Airpower!

Please continue to post your comments and concerns on the blog at http://afsapr.dodlive.mil.

PHOTO: Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Larry Spencer speaks with Airmen from the 11th Logistics Readiness Squadron on Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 6, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Erin O’Shea)

AF encourages Airmen to be key part of SAPR solution

Gen. Spencer, Air Force vice chief of staffby Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

In an effort to address the growing concern of sexual assault in the Air Force, the service has kicked off an initiative to give Airmen the capability for their voice to be clearly heard called “Every Airman Counts.”

“I believe Airmen are a key part of the solution to this,” said. Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, the director of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office. “They understand the problem, and they know what needs to be done to help conquer it. Now we need them to share those innovative ideas with us and each other. We need our Airmen talking about this issue.”

To enable this dialogue, the Air Force SAPR office members designed a blog to share ideas, collect suggestions, concerns, stories, and questions for Air Force leaders and SAPR officials. The SAPR blog site asks Airmen to make inputs on how the service can better combat sexual assault.”We can’t fix this issue sitting in the Pentagon,” said Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff. “We need each and every one of you to get engaged in addressing this issue… this crime, and it is a crime. We need to know exactly where you feel the issues are, so we can address them with laser focus. I need every one of you helping us find ways to ensure dignity and respect are prevailing qualities in our daily relationships.”

Content on the site will be driven in part by Airmen making firsthand posts. In addition to the blog, the Air Force is organizing web chats that will be moderated forums for real-time information exchange between Airmen, subject matter experts and senior leaders.

Various experts in the SAPR area will host these discussions to gain a better understanding of the issues at every level.

“We’ve been doing a lot of talking on this issue,” Woodward said. “It’s important that we listen.”

The SAPR blog is just one of many actions the Air Force is pursuing to help address the issues sexual assault within the ranks and to offer support for victims. Other actions include the creation of the Special Victims Counsel program earlier this year, which provides constant support to sexual assault victims throughout the legal process.

Airmen can view the blog and make posts by logging into the Air Force portal with their Defense Department Common Access Card, and clicking on the photo tab titled Every Airman Counts or go to http://afsapr.dodlive.mil.

“‘Every Airman Counts is about you, our Airmen, our most precious resource,” Spencer said. “Our strength lies in our people, so we’re asking all of our teammates to help us stop sexual assaults now. The American people place great trust and confidence in our military. We cannot and will not violate that trust.”

PHOTO: Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff, encourages Airmen to get involved with “Every Airman Counts”. The initative is designed to foster communication between Airmen and senior leaders about sexual assault prevention and response. (U.S. Air Force graphic)