WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. – “Hey sexy … you single?”
I turned to see a fellow Airman in training; standing about 5 feet 8 inches tall, dark hair and eyes. Over the next four months, I heard this fellow classmate repeat the same line more than a couple dozen times.
It wasn’t just me he had an eye for; it was a handful of my new girlfriends as well. We laughed it off. All of us had just completed basic training and were beginning another chapter in our brand-new military careers at technical school. Why make enemies at the start?
About a month in, I grew tired of the cheesy pick-up lines and over-used sexual innuendos. I asked one of our ropes (student leader) to step in to have a chat with the guy regarding how uncomfortable he made me.
Unfortunately, that chat didn’t have much of an effect on the Airman and as “luck” would have it, I sat next to him during class.
Lucky me, right?
I was pretty good at letting his suggestive comments flow in one ear and out the other, careful not to show it bothered me (as that only added fuel to his fire). Up to this point, his words were the only offensive thing he had been doing. But then I dropped my pencil. As I stooped over to pick it up I heard a loud voice boom throughout the classroom.
“Are you serious, Airman?”
Startled, I nearly smacked my head off the table trying to sit back up. With our entire class now looking back toward us, our two class leaders, Marines, shrugged them away and stated “We’ll talk about this at break – carry on.”
Unbeknownst to me, this guy had just executed one of the foulest and sexually suggestive hand gestures behind my head. The class leaders luckily sat behind us and saw what he had just done.
That was the final straw. The class leaders already knew how annoyed I was by his behavior and asked if I wanted to take this latest development “up the chain.” I had no intention of getting anyone in trouble since we were all brand-new to the military. I’d hoped that the class leaders had scared him enough by this point and decided against it – asking only to move seats to get away from him.
With my new location in the classroom, I felt a bit more at ease. Although the Airman now had one of his male friends start to jeer me because I had gotten him in trouble. I felt beaten and angry. I had no control over the situation, it wasn’t “my” fault he did what he did.
He was lucky I didn’t take it up the chain of command.
About a week after the hand gesture incident, I’d had it with the remarks from him and his friend. That’s when I asked one of our former ropes in our dormitory to have a talk with these two guys. This former rope commanded the respect of all the guys in the Airman dormitory; certainly he would be able to have an impact on this guy. Shortly after the discussion this time, the jokes and rude remarks stopped all together. The Airman and his friend now completely avoided me – Victory at last!
Three months later, two weeks before our class graduation date, a female instructor came up to me as I was on my way back from a class assignment.
“Airman Galloway, follow me, please,” she said.
I proceeded down the hallway and into a small room with a handful of computers and two girls from my class already in place.
Confusion and a spark of panic overcame me when the door was shut behind me and I realized something serious was going on. One of the female Airmen had been crying and her eyes were still puffy and red.
“Galloway, as I understand, you had a harassment issue with a particular Airman?” my instructor asked.
I acknowledged her question and explained my experience with the group and asked why this was just coming to light as the incident happened nearly three months prior.
Her response shook me to the core as she explained that the two female Airmen, fellow classmates, had just had the same type of harassment, only it had gone above what this man had done to me.
The Airman allegedly grabbed one of the girls and cornered her in an area where we kept our equipment. He put his hand over her mouth and pushed her back against the lockers – pressing his body against hers and proceeded to kiss his hand in a suggestive way.
This was why I was being called into the room, the other girl was witness to what happened and they both wanted to open an investigation after speaking with the sexual assault response coordinator on base.
They knew I had been in a situation and wanted to know if I also wanted to open an investigation.
I realized that what was thought to be simple but annoying joking was turning into something much more serious.
How much more would his behavior deteriorate? What if I had reported this incident when it happened to me? Would this still have happened to this girl?
The thoughts in my mind raced. I agreed to speak to the SARC.
The concept of an entire office committed to sexual assault boggled me. I had no idea what was in store as the three of us walked into the SARC office to again explain what happened. To my relief, the officer was approachable and sincere; she made every effort to ease our minds and explained what was going to happen.
All three of us had to give her our written statements separately and without prejudice.
After reviewing our statements, she concluded that there was a definite issue and asked us individually if we wanted to proceed with a restricted or unrestricted report.
A restricted report requires the member to be in status and can only report the incident to medical personnel, SARC or a victim advocate, but an unrestricted report means the member can report the incident to investigative agencies such as the Air Force Office of Special Investigation or security forces, as well as to members in their chain of command such as the first sergeant, supervisor, or commander.
All three of us wanted the unrestricted report.
We were sent back to the dormitory after meeting with the SARC to speak with our military training leaders. Upon arrival, the captain was already waiting for us. As we entered her office, at attention and visibly shaken, she asked us to sit down. Up until this point, we had not had any personal interaction with this busy officer and had grown to fear having to report to her.
“Ladies, first of all I want you to know that you are not alone,” she said. “Secondly, I want to assure you that this Airman will be dealt with and I will do everything to ensure your safety and confidentiality of this situation, but you need to ensure the confidentiality on your end as well.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” we simultaneously squeaked out.
We had already signed confidentiality agreements and were ordered not to talk about the situation to any of our classmates.
After an hour of conversing with the captain, she released us to go back to our rooms to deal with what had just occurred in our own manner. What had started as a normal day had taken such a dramatic turn of events. Our minds were warped. We were mentally exhausted.
A team of OSI agents came to our dormitory as well as military police, who went through the Airman’s room seeking incriminating evidence. They pulled him from class and brought him back to the dorms so that he could pack his belongings.
He was being isolated from the rest of the dorm, moving onto the first floor near our MTL’s offices.
We were only two weeks from graduating. Because of this incident, the Airman jeopardized his marriage, his security clearance – and his military career.
Beginning in basic training, all of the advice from my military training instructor had prepared me for something like this, though I never thought I would be involved in a “SARC” case. It was something we had joked and laughed about training. Yet my MTI knew better. Before we left his watchful eye he warned us that an alarming number of technical school SARC cases do happen and will happen and that we should prepare ourselves.
His words still rang in my ear like reveille in the morning.
“If it isn’t you, it’s the person next to you.”