Why does the U.S. Air Force need a Sexual Assault Awareness Month? Is it really a problem? Isn’t sexual assault more prevalent outside the military? Where do these statistics come from anyway? Is it realistic to aim for zero assaults?
Thankfully, these outrageous questions represent the vestiges of a retreating mindset. A new paradigm aims to drastically reduce sexual assaults within our ranks. It is encouraging that our institutional culture has begun to tackle the problem of sexual assault with the same professionalism that characterizes our aviation safety culture.
Back in the Air Force’s infancy, aviation mishaps occurred regularly. For example, in 1952 the Air Force experienced 2,274 class-A mishaps (the most serious). Today, even with fewer than 40 class-A mishaps annually over the last five years, we don’t hear Airmen ask if aviation safety is really a problem that needs attention. Instead, Airmen readily take up the challenge to aim for zero mishaps. Airmen understand how their actions can contribute to, or mitigate the risk of a tragic outcome.
Similarly, Airmen must continue to take on the challenge to cultivate an atmosphere of respect, in which sexual assault is eradicated. To do so, each of us must:
- Acknowledge the problem. The chief of staff of the Air Force says he’s looked at the numbers 10 different ways and they represent a real and pervasive challenge to our culture.
- Approach the problem professionally. Work to increase awareness and promote accountability.
- Correct unprofessional behavior. A simple, “Hey, that type of behavior is not acceptable” suffices in many situations.
- Lead by example. Talk about ways to mitigate the risk of sexual assault with your peers and subordinates.
- Be a wingman. Look out for your fellow Airmen
Not long from now, when we look back at the statistics that show the outrageous prevalence of sexual assault in our Air Force from the 1980s-2010s, we will see a bygone era. Airmen who take up service after us will gaze upon those numbers in disbelief, in the same way we look in horror at the prevalence of aviation safety mishaps in the 1950s. Every month will be Sexual Assault Awareness Month, not just April. It will be ingrained in our DNA as Airmen, warriors and leaders.