Reflections from the outgoing SARC

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- If you weren't aware, April is a busy month for increasing our awareness of serious social issues - National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Alcohol Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

As I considered how all these serious social ills bleed into each other, I contemplated this quote by inspirational speaker and author, Ogwo David Emenike: "The burden of knowledge is lighter than the joy of ignorance." Knowledge certainly is a burden, as experience has toughly taught me.

This is my second SAAM as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for Turkey. I arrived here last March after receiving 40 hours of SARC training feeling unprepared, yet determined. I was afraid the phone would ring, yet resigned to the odds that it eventually would. It did ring, and I responded.

With every call and every case comes the burden of knowing someone has been hurt and needs help, and the accompanying weight of upholding confidence. The gravity of the offenses and the depths of the hurts can pull us down, but sharing our burdens makes them more bearable - that is part of my service and why I am here. I am especially capable of helping because I care fiercely, and because I have been enlightened by doing the research on the psychology of victim behavior and the cultural psychology of victim-blaming - I now understand why sometimes victims behave in ways that do not seem to make sense to most people and why most people would rather blame victims for their own victimization than empathize with them.

However, I cannot help every victim or dispel every myth on my own. This battle needs to be fought by as many Airmen as possible - Airmen who already are not like most people and have accepted that they are held to a higher standard. Recruiting champions for the cause of protecting those who protect our nation starts with awareness. You cannot expect people to fight for a cause when they do not care about it because they do not know about it.

In my new annual Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training sessions, I bring up the fact that sexual assault is not an Air Force or military-specific issue - it is a worldwide human rights issue. We, as a global community, have not figured out how to stop people from sexually assaulting people.

But, in the Air Force, we have recently learned much more about the nature of this crime as it relates to our Air Force-specific culture and structure, and we have identified common themes and trends. We know our youngest Airmen are most often the victims, and alcohol is nearly always involved.

I have started telling Airmen they are now burdened with the knowledge of the crime of sexual assault, and they cannot shirk it. They now know more about perpetrator behavior, who victims are, what situations make people the most vulnerable and typical sequences and situations that lead up to sexual assaults. This new knowledge is a burden I am sharing with them, and I encourage them to share it with each other so we can all work together to establish new norms in our Air Force culture, new behavioral standards which will make it more acceptable for people to intervene on each other's behalves and safer for victims to come forward and speak for themselves and name the crime committed against them. We are not there yet. We have work to do.

This year's theme SAAM theme is We Own It ... We'll Solve it ... Together. As the media has recently highlighted, we have a problem to solve. We have not only admitted it, but we are now, more than ever, dug in and invested in taking real action to alleviate this disease which has too-often silently taken out our fellow Airmen and threatened the heart of our body of warriors. The only way we can solve it is together.

Togetherness entails sharing shouldering the weight and realizing the burden of knowledge really is lighter than the joy of ignorance. We have all heard the axiom, "Ignorance is bliss," but we Airmen are a proud crowd, and no one respects ignorance. We are better than that. Ignoring problems does not make them go away, and passively standing by and watching ourselves struggle with the problem of sexual assault in our military has been an injustice and a disservice to our heritage. The time is long overdue for us to speak up and step out, following those brave few who have already pushed through the pile of psychological barriers to voicing these crimes and calling for justice.

As the SARC here on Incirlik, I have been inspired by the amount of support I have received from different helping agencies and leadership and by the number of hands I have seen raised to volunteer to serve as Victim Advocates or otherwise help with SAPR efforts. They have seen the size of the problem and, rather than be scared and ignore it or expect someone else to deal with it, they have held up their hands to reach out for it and take it on. I am grateful and indebted to all of those who have helped lighten the load of the survivors we have helped, and to everyone who has helped lighten my own load.

Though it has not been a joyous job, it has been worth the price paid to serve in this capacity as your SARC. I hope you all continue to become more aware of this crime and how you can help, so the enlightening may help lighten our shared burden. Thank you.