Real wingmen act

  • Published
  • By Col. Eric Axelbank
  • 65th Air Base Wing vice commander
Preventing sexual assault requires a culture change at the grassroots level. Applying President Harry S. Truman's "The buck stops here" motto teaches wingmen to avoid passing responsibility for action to others when witnessing sexual harassment or a situation that may lead to sexual assault. Leaders, by nature of their actions or inaction, define Air Force culture and establish precedent.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley opened up the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Leader Summit held in Crystal City, Va., Nov. 4. His message to wing leaders was clear, "there is no tolerance for sexual assault in our Air Force" and that "leaders at all levels must be engaged."

Dr. Dorothy Edwards', Green Dot, Inc. executive director, research revealed the three most notable reasons why bystanders do not intervene: (1) diffusion of responsibility, (2) evaluation apprehension and (3) modeling. The "passing the buck" example above exemplifies diffusion of responsibility. In this case, responsibility for action is transferred to someone else who may or may not act. Evaluation apprehension refers to the notion of the fear of being embarrassed.

And lastly, modeling is where Airmen set the example and define culture either through their action or inaction. In order to prevent sexual assault, Airmen must overcome these three causes of non-intervention. Leaders must also carve out time to talk to Airmen about their responsibility to intervene. This is another venue where wingmen must act and live up to the Airman's Creed.

One of the key themes of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program is that sexual assault is a perpetrator's issue as opposed to a victim's issue.

Too often, institutions focus on the victim and what the victim did or did not do. Attention must be centered on the perpetrator because according to Dr. David Lasik, a clinical psychologist from the University of Massachusetts, more than 90 percent of all rapes are committed by serial offenders. This alarming statistic is minimized when the focus is shifted to the victim versus the serial rapist. During a 2009 Navy Study, new recruits who committed rape before enlisting were 10 times more likely to commit rape during their first year on active duty than men who have not committed this crime.

Doctor Lasik also outlined the typical sequence of a sexual attack. Perpetrators normally plan their attacks in advance. The first step rapists employ is to identify a vulnerability (e.g. intoxication, instability and/or being alone). The second step is their attempt to increase vulnerability by, for example, increasing the victim's level of intoxication.

Lastly, the perpetrator seeks to isolate the victim. This can be done by driving the victim home or taking the victim to a unpopulated location. Faced with these types of situations, wingmen must intervene and proactively prevent this crime from happening. Having the courage to act prevents that "corrosive thread which shoots through the fabric that is the Air Force as an institution" according to Anne Munch, American Prosecutors Research Institute faculty member.

During the 2010 Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Leader Summit, Secretary Donley also impressed upon the participants that Airmen should "keep faith with their fellow Airmen." Real wingmen are not bystanders who diffuse their responsibilities. Real wingmen act!