The enemy in the fox hole

About 80 percent of the assaults on Air Force women were perpetrated by military members and 80 percent of those were Air Force members. Nearly 50 percent of assaults on Air Force men were perpetrated by military members and of that, 92 percent were in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration)

About 80 percent of the assaults on Air Force women were perpetrated by military members and 80 percent of those were Air Force members. Nearly 50 percent of assaults on Air Force men were perpetrated by military members and of that, 92 percent were in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Grappling with how to prevent sexual assault, we rightly focus on the positive impact of appropriate bystander/wingman intervention as well as how potential victims can reduce their risk. Another important avenue is to understand a significant barrier to prevention. That barrier is the denial that the offender may be one of our own.

To address the problem, the Air Force commissioned Gallup to do a survey about the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault specifically in the Air Force.

The Gallup survey reported that 12,000 women and 5,500 men have been sexually assaulted while in the Air Force. The Pentagon estimates there were 19,000 sexual assaults perpetrated on our military members just in the past year. About 19 percent of women and 2 percent of men are being victimized in our Air Force, which begs the question: Who is doing the offending?

In the Air Force, our norm is we are outraged, not just simply uncomfortable, when others act wrongly. We are protectors and defenders.

Therefore, let us acknowledge up front that few men rape. Men are not the problem. Offenders are.

Those offenders look like you and me. As long as we are in denial about that fact, we are less likely to intervene, less likely to report if we are a victim, and perhaps even less likely to be objective if called upon to be a court member in a sexual assault trial.

One of the hardest things to come to terms with about offenders is they live and work among us. Take the recent Penn State sexual assault case for instance. People felt the gamut of emotions - shock, disbelief and outrage - when the sexual assault allegations were against one of their own.

Or consider the Catholic churches' issues with not only the thousands of allegations of sexual abuse, but the many allegations of a church cover up. It can be very difficult to see our responsibilities clearly if we are in denial that people we know, and even respect, might be capable of sexually abusing another.

Here is the reality: When an assault occurs in our Air Force family the accused is often one of our own. About 80 percent of the assaults on Air Force women were perpetrated by military members and 80 percent of those were Air Force members. Nearly 50 percent of assaults on Air Force men were perpetrated by military members and of that, 92 percent were in the Air Force.

Add to the fact that most offenders are on the street, not incarcerated. Many sex crimes are not solved. In general, at least 60 percent of rapes or sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Factoring in unreported rapes, only about 6 percent of rapists ever serve a day in jail.

In the military, 8 percent of the reported cases are prosecuted. Of that, 2 percent end in a conviction. Add in the number of unreported cases and that leaves most offenders among us.

Our shock, dismay and denial may lead us to be slow to intervene. The Air Force wingman concept and Bystander Intervention Training demands we intervene.

It can become tempting to look for an alternate reality. Maybe he was ignorant of the law. Maybe she really didn't do it. Or if he did, he certainly didn't mean to. It was an accident. A mistake somehow. Maybe the drink made her do it. Maybe the victim is making it up.

What we know about sex offenders is that they are more like the general population, than unlike them. Sex offenders can be male or female, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, religious or non-religious, educated or uneducated, from any race, and adolescent to elderly.

Many offenders are aware that rape is not only illegal but also harmful, yet they engage in this behavior anyway. This is likely the result of "pro-offending attitudes." Sex offenders may tell themselves, and even tell others, that the behavior is not harmful or that it is less serious. They may claim the victim enjoyed the behavior or initiated the sexual contact. They may come up with justifications for engaging in sex offending behaviors. These self-statements give the offenders "permission" to do something they know is wrong, and therefore they may not feel as badly about themselves for doing it.

What about alcohol as a risk factor for offending? Annual crime victim reports indicate that approximately 30 percent of all reported rapes and sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the offender. Alcohol use, therefore, may increase the likelihood someone already predisposed to commit a sexual assault will act upon those impulses. However, excessive alcohol use is not a primary precipitant to sexual assaults.

We may easily be swayed to believe an offender when they themselves don't believe they did anything wrong or feel justified in their actions.

We know of course, the majority of offenders know their victims, and use manipulation, coercion, threats, and shame to gain compliance and to silence them. And most of them are serial offenders.

With offenders it is all about them. Entitled to take and be gratified at the expense of their victim.

One thing's for sure, offenders' actions are the antithesis of what it means to be Air Force men and women.

Integrity first, Service before self, Excellence in all we do.

Some have said sexual assault in our Air Force is like "the enemy in the fox hole." It is akin to fratricide, the act of killing one's brother. It kills our brothers' and sisters' souls. We must send a message to offenders that their behavior will not be tolerated in our Air Force. We must show victims our support and be heroic, active bystanders.

To contact the Peterson Sexual Assault Response Coordinator call 556-6972 (office) or to report a sexual assault call the 24-hour crisis line at 556-7272.