Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III spoke candidly with top Air Force leaders about sexual assault prevention and response during the Three-Star Summit held April 14, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md..
“Eliminating sexual assault is a huge priority,” James said. “It is a top priority for me; job one is taking care of people and this is part of that. We need to do everything that we can to protect the sons and daughters of America who come to us for service in the Air Force.”
James thanked the leaders at the summit for the focus they have given in support of sexual assault prevention. She spoke about her effort to speak to local sexual assault response coordinators, special victim counsels and victim advocates during her travels. She said she is encouraged by the increase in reporting, and the firm emphasis placed on both the prevention of sexual assault, and the treatment of survivors.
“What we want is the reports going up and the incidents going down,” James said. “The vision of the future is to have none of this, and that’s what we’re all working toward.”
Although there have been exceptional advances in the treatment and care of victims, as well as the judicial process, there is still a lot to learn, Welsh explained.
“Unprofessional work environments, unprofessional relationships and harassment are all things that can lead to sexual assault,” Welsh said. “We are responsible for making sure those things don’t happen.”
He lauded the Air Force’s efforts with the Special Victims Counsel Program, which provides individual legal support to victims of sexual assault, calling it a “game changer.”
But, “we need game changers in every part of the spectrum, from prevention to life-long care for the survivors,” Welsh said. “The solution is about focusing on one victim; thinking about the impact on that individual, and multiply that by a couple thousand. We have got to change this.”
Ignoring the issue will not make it go away, he added.
Welsh also emphasized the importance of relationships; ensuring commanders, supervisors and coworkers alike truly know the people they work with.
“Why is it that, on the worst day of their life, 84 percent of the people who we swore to fight and die beside, if necessary, don’t feel comfortable coming to us for help?” Welsh asked.
Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response director, gave commanders a “where we are” picture, recapping the time from when the SAPR office began in 2005 to the present day.
“Despite our efforts, at the end of the day, we still haven’t been able to prevent this,” Grosso said.
As such, she outlined major ongoing and upcoming initiatives her office is leading to ensure victims have the support they need throughout the reporting process and beyond.
Experts from several fields, including law enforcement, legal and behavioral science were present to give their insight and take questions. Two sexual assault survivors were also addressed the group, and took their questions.
“Since the audience is three-star generals, they hold the reigns of leadership,” said Staff Sgt. Noah Lubben, a 25th Intelligence Squadron, Detachment 2, airborne crypto logic language analyst direct support operator. “I hope they execute with precision, and I hope (my story) reaches people who are victims.”
He opened up about how important his leaders had been in empowering him as a victim.
“I hope if there have been victims, they understand the Air Force has their back,” Lubben said. “Somewhere up the chain, eventually (their story) is going to get to someone who cares. These leaders are trying to stop sexual assault, and they’re trying to change the culture.”
Open and candid discussion was the cornerstone of the day, and the top Air Force leaders were recognized for all the work they’ve done so far, and pushed to continue to make sexual assault prevention a top priority.
“As leaders, we have it in our power to put an end to this in our Air Force,” James said. “We ask that each of you take it seriously, and really take it personally every day to do your upmost to make sure that this does not happen on your watch.”