Commentary Search

I'm not telling

  • Published
  • By Mary Brown
  • Sexual Assault Prevention and Response coordinator
August is Health Awareness Month. I'd like to address one of our health issues in the Air Force - sexual assault. It's a very personal violation, a very horrendous and traumatic experience, yet, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, "60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police." The same site then indicates that "97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail."

Why? Why don't survivors come forward? In our annual training this year, the research indicates the number one reason is that survivors don't feel they will be believed. How sad is that?

Again, according to RAINN, "the trauma extends beyond the physical. Victims are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and four times more likely to contemplate suicide."

If victims don't come forward to medical or mental health care providers or spiritual advisors, they won't receive the help they need. The offender counts on the silence of the survivor.

Stigma, shame and fear were by far the primary reasons men indicated they wouldn't report a sexual assault, according to the unit climate assessments conducted last year at F.E. Warren AFB. After all, in a sexual assault, the survivor feels like they've lost control of the situation, they feel helpless.

Many victims feel they are partially to blame, even though it is not their fault.

The annual training this year stressed the fact that sexual assault is about the offender. If the perpetrator isn't present, there's no sexual assault. Unfortunately, in the military, 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows and trusts - a fact that adds to survivors thinking the incident must be partly their fault. From there the survivors start to question their own ability to determine who they can trust and become wary about trusting anyone.

Fear of lack of privacy or confidentiality is also a concern. Typically survivors don't want people to know what's happened. They're unsure how it will affect their relationships with family, friends and co-workers. They don't want to be reduced in the eyes of the commander or their colleagues. They worry about the stigma or embarrassment.

In the military, they are also concerned about clearances, training, assignments, deployments, and the effects on their career. F.E. Warren is a Personal Reliability Program base and if someone has to come down on PRP, others have to pick up the slack and carry the load. Individuals are worried about being team players and pulling their weight in accomplishing the mission.

This is a dangerous choice. If someone can't focus on the job, they need to come down off PRP. They would do that if they had a serious illness, a death in the family, etc. In a sexual assault, the survivor needs time to recover from a loss as well. For the sake of the mission and co-workers, survivors need to take the time necessary to recover.

Sometimes survivors don't report due to fear of disciplinary action from misconduct at the time of the incident, such as underage drinking or drugs. Sometimes they don't want to get fellow service members in trouble for actions or collateral misconduct. It's not that there won't be any consequences, but the first concern of commanders is the safety and well-being of their people.

Fear of re-victimization is a major factor in reporting. The investigators need to get all the facts in order to pursue or make a case. For the survivor, that may mean re-telling their story multiple times and reliving the dreadfulness of the event.

Winston Churchill once said, "If you're going through Hell, keep going."

The legal process takes time, but the alleged offender has rights too. They are innocent until proven guilty, no matter how awful the crime. The way to justice is through the process.
Some survivors don't report a sexual assault because they think nothing will be done. This is not true in today's military, especially with the increased emphasis in eradicating this crime from the military. Survivors are taken very seriously.

It's best if the survivor can report the crime right after it happens, in order for law enforcement to best collect evidence. However, whenever it's reported, they will do their best to pursue the case or work with the authorities who can investigate it. If the incident isn't reported, nothing can be done and the offender will be free to continue hurting others.

You may wonder why people do come forward. It's because they have incredible courage and they are amazing wingmen. As we learned in our annual training, when it comes to understanding offenders' behaviors, it is not "why would they do that?" They do it and continue to do it because they can. It is "why would they stop?"

The research shows that many perpetrators are serial offenders. They won't stop until they are caught. Reporting a sexual assault doesn't ensure a conviction, but there can only be an investigation if the details of the offense are reported.

Even if there's insufficient evidence for a conviction, the fact that someone was investigated may modify their behaviors in the future and protect potential future victims. If they are convicted, both the military and general population can benefit.

Whether a survivor decides to report a sexual assault, or not, I want to share my favorite quote that I carry everywhere, from Darwin Kingsley: "You have powers you never dreamed of. You can do things you never thought you could do. There are no limitations to what you can do, except the limitations of your own mind." Although it can apply to everyone, I think it especially applies to sexual assault survivors.

If anyone has questions or needs assistance, please call the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response helpline at 307-773-3483. You can tell us anything. No report is ever filed without the permission of the survivor. With the help of our survivors, we can make a difference in the future health and well-being of our Air Force members and society in general.