WASHINGTON — Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III hosted a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit Dec. 11 and 12 as part of the Air Force’s ongoing effort to provide education and analysis on the issue and to discuss the complex leadership concerns sexual assault presents.
Welsh brought in wing commanders, command chiefs and sexual assault response coordinators from across the Air Force to attend the two-day event at Joint Base Andrews, Md., which included discussion from senior leaders, sexual assault victims and national experts in the field.
“We have some people who are brilliant about it … and their experience is incredibly valuable to us,” said Welsh in his address to commanders, explaining his goal of ensuring everyone has the same access to information and best practices.
Summit briefers included experts in the study of predatory behavior, victim care, legal and legislative issues.
“We selected these speakers because they are recognized experts in their field and have a deep understanding about the issues that surround sexual assault – they have studied it for years,” said Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, director of the Headquarters Air Force SAPR Office. “We wanted our leadership to gain a deeper understanding about the spectrum of trauma our victims endure, how predators operate, and equip them with knowledge to help them better understand the complexity of this issue from both the victim and offender perspectives.”
“You can see the quality of the expertise of the people advising us here… a pretty impressive group of people who care an awful lot about what’s going on in our military and want to help any way they can,” Welsh said.
Part of the problem’s solution, the general said, is creating an environment where every Airman is valued and every Airman is engaged.
“Our Airmen join the Air Force to make a difference, they want to feel valued. They deserve a culture of dignity and respect,” he said. “Every one of them has to feel critically important to what we do. If they don’t, we’re not as good as we could be. That’s the culture we want, that’s the Air Force we want to be a part of. The folks that are going to make that a reality are sitting in this room.”
One of the attending commanders, Col. Kimberlee Joos, 17th Training Wing commander at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, remembers when she was a lieutenant and there wasn’t an emphasis on fighting and preventing sexual assault as there is in today’s military.
“When Lieutenant Joos was starting out, we didn’t have any of this,” she said. “I think the actions we’ve taken are good. The Chief was right – it’s now up to us to remove the culture that might still exist in certain places that encourages that type of behavior. I think people are more willing to come forward now, but we’re not there yet. We’re a long way from declaring victory.”
In June this year, the Air Force stood up a more prominent, directorate-level SAPR office which reports directly to the Air Force vice chief of staff. The Air Force dedicated additional resources to combat this issue, moving from a four-person branch to a team of thirty-two personnel from a cross-section of skill sets.
“One of our greatest successes thus far has simply been giving this topic the visibility and level of focus it deserves,” Woodward said. “Our multi-functional approach to addressing this problem allows us to gain significant depth in understanding the issue. Our senior leaders are focused on this issue every day, and our Airmen deserve this from us. Collectively we need to fix this, as our mission readiness depends on it.”
Woodward said another key goal of the summit was to clear up any common misperceptions about sexual assault.
“We all have a lot to learn about sexual assault and the more every Airman understands it, the better equipped we are to identify the insurgents amongst us and better support the survivors of this crime,” she said.
Central to that support is the partnership between leaders and their SARCs who work to provide a seamless response to victims as well as develop prevention initiatives, provide training and ensure community awareness, according to Debbie Allen, Air Force SAPR office operations branch chief.
“We want people to walk away from the summit feeling empowered about their role in the process,” Allen said. “They are doing a great job, and we appreciate that, however, we have many challenges that all of us are working collectively to solve the problem of sexual assault. As one of the speakers said, we have to believe this is a problem we can overcome.”
Woodward wants all commanders to “start by believing.” Believe there is a problem, and believe victims when they come forward. This doesn’t go contrary to “innocent until proven guilty,” but balances the rights of the accused with the critical act of believing victims throughout the process, she said.
Welsh closed the summit thanking the group for their focused efforts in this challenging area.
“The fact is, you guys are working hard, don’t slow down,” Welsh said. “We’re just starting to gain a little bit of momentum. Thanks for everything you’re doing, we haven’t done near enough. We’ve got to be better, that’s why we’re here.”
Editor’s note: Randy Roughton of the Defense Media Activity contributed to this article.