KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — Every year, the Family Advocacy Program staff plans and implements a community awareness campaign designed to educate Keesler Air Force Base Airmen, as well as reinforce the reality that prevention and detection of interpersonal violence is truly a base-wide responsibility.
This year, FAP teamed up with Brig. Gen. Kory Cornum, Ph.D., 81st Medical Group commander, to conduct a social experiment. Fifteen male and female volunteers of various ranks, ages and job descriptions were recruited to don realistic moulage injuries indicative of non-accidental trauma. Each victim was then embedded within his or her duty section to conduct the routine day-to-day responsibilities of the job.
The objective? It was to observe and evaluate bystander response to the perceived injury, both from friends and coworkers as well as casual observers. Would others approach, express concern and offer support? Would the bruises, bites or scratches be a source of discomfort or embarrassment for others and responded to with jokes or deliberate avoidance?
If approached by concerned bystanders, volunteers offered no explanation, but handed them cards explaining the experiment, confirming their actual safety and thanking the wingmen for intervening. Otherwise, the volunteers were to go about their normal daily routine, working, going out to lunch or hitting the gym for a quick workout. The volunteer victims were instructed to pay careful attention to their own personal thoughts and feelings as they observed others.
Many of the participants reported being surprised by their observations. One common finding was the frequency with which the clearly, visible injuries were actively ignored, even in situations in which they interacted with others one-on-one. In fact, 61 percent of the tallied responses were described as “purposely ignoring the injury or saying nothing.”
Virtually all participants reported that many of the colleagues closest to them seemed the least likely to respond. All participants agreed that when this occurred, the negative impact was significantly greater than feeling ignored by acquaintances or strangers.
Although there were a few reported exceptions, most Air Force members in leadership positions expressed concern and offered support. The majority of participants agreed that the attitude with which a bystander approached them was critical, as many were addressed in the presence of others or in a teasing or joking manner.
Virtually all volunteer victims reported experiencing an emotional response, citing sadness, depression, anger, disappointment and hurt as examples.
One of our own March members submitted this poem in response to a real-life situation, riddled with abuse from a controlling spouse:
BIRD IN A CAGE – confined
Look at that bird in the cage
How colorful and beautiful is she
So happy and vibrant is what we see
How lucky to be that bird in a cage
Look at those people staring at me
Believing life is fair and content in a cage
Confinement and governed makes me rage
What it must feel like to fly high and be free
No worries or fear, protective from harm
All possible wants and needs are met
Life is so wonderful for her,
I bet Love by one with so much charm
Oh how saddened I am from day to day
To be scrutinized by the watchful eye
Desire and wants are suppressed to die
Escaping to freedom, someday I may
This feedback is consistent with what is known about interpersonal violence. The message conveyed by a bystander’s lack of response is, “I’m not worth anyone taking the time. No one cares. I must deserve it.” Worse, the senses of betrayal, hopelessness and despair experienced when someone they trust chooses to ignore the signs of non-accidental trauma are often the toughest hurdle for survivors to overcome in counseling. This dilemma is not based on people not caring, taking the time to notice, or thinking it is none of their business. To the contrary, most people are concerned and want to do the right thing, but elect not to intervene because they worry about possibly offending the victim, or they simply do not know what to say.
Maybe the biggest lesson about the experiment, is the reminder that every one of us has tremendous power in others’ lives. You may not need to know details about the private lives of everyone in your office to recognize if one of them suddenly comes to work with a black eye. After talking to hundreds of trauma survivors through the years, I can tell you this: If someone is being hurt, your silence damages far more than if you should say something that seems awkward.
So be discreet, be respectful, be kind. If you are concerned, say something like, “Hey, if you want to talk or you ever need anything, I’m always here.” Those simple words of compassion have the potential to become a lifeline that might become the hope that makes a difference in that person’s life.