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To change a culture: New Air Force training focuses on eliminating sexism in the military

Air Force personnel admit it's difficult to call out their peers for sexist jokes or intervene in sexual harassment.

"I personally do not feel comfortable, but I still do it anyway because I don't want to see what would happen next," said Beale Air Force Base Technical Sgt. Julio Serrano.

"It starts off as a joke, but if a commander or squadron leader doesn't nip that in the bud, (predators) can hide in that environment."

Serrano, like every other airman at Beale, was recently trained to understand that sexual predators' behavior can be tracked on a "continuum of harm." It begins with sexist jokes, and if allowed, evolves into objectification, comments about a person's body, inappropriate touching and finally to criminal sexual acts.

"There is a very clear link between sexual harassment and sexual assault," Col. Phil Stewart, former commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, told his airmen before he left in June for a new assignment at the Pentagon.

Sexual assault in the military and the military's historical response to those assaults have increasingly come under fire over the last few years. The Air Force has responded with new training programs, additional resources for victims and increased transparency from the court.

Col. Douglas J. Lee, the new 9th Reconnaissance Wing commander, said Friday the Air Force takes sexual assault cases extremely seriously and such cases are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"Individuals who commit these crimes are a tiny fraction of people in the Air Force, and they do not represent the majority of the professional men and women who serve this great nation honorably," Lee said.

One of the goals of the new training is to push airmen to be proactive and help identify sexual predators. They're learning to intervene when they witness ina propriate behavior and challenge internalized beliefs that may place the blame of sexual assault on victims.

Basically, Beale airmen have been enlisted in a new mission as foot soldiers in the campaign for cultural change to stop sexual assault.

"I want my airmen to root out bad airmen," Stewart said.

That philosophy puts pressure on every airman to be a part of the fight against sexual assault, Serrano said.

Cathy Knight, the civilian sexual assault response coordinator at Beale, said the most important initiative on base has been to replace "death by PowerPoint" presentations with briefings and training that are audience-specific, interactive, memorable and actionable.

"We feel we succeed when we get people talking — engaging in meaningful dialogue that helps change behaviors and the culture," Knight said.

A training in May, delivered to everyone on the base — military and defense civilians — focused on offender behavior. The next training will be on the neurobiology of sexual trauma and will focus on survivors of sexual assault and their recovery.

Victims may feel more comfortable reporting assaults

According to the Department of Defense, 1,047 sexual assaults were reported in the Air Force in fiscal year 2013. Only about 11 percent of sexual assault victims report the crime, according to a study conducted by the Pentagon and released in May 2014.

Reports of sexual assault across the Department of Defense increased 50 percent from 2012 to 2013, which officials attribute to victims feeling more comfortable reporting assaults.

At Beale Air Force Base, four airmen have been tried and convicted of sexual assault since 2010. Those assaults impacted nine victims, some civilian and some airmen. One airman was tried and acquitted in that same time.

Two additional courts-martial are scheduled at Beale in October, impacting at least two alleged victims.

Requests for the number of sexual assaults involving Beale airmen that have been reported were not fulfilled.

"The Air Force is refraining from releasing specific base statistics for several reasons," said Lt. Siobhan G. Bennett with Beale public affairs.

During training, talk shifts away from blaming the victim

A group of airmen gathered in a breakroom to talk about an upcoming party. During the conversation, they ranked their female colleagues' looks, talked about spiking the women's drinks and placed bets on who would be able to have sex that night.

It was actually a role-playing scenario in a four-hour mandatory training session at Beale Air Force Base in May.

After the scenario was played out in groups of up to 25, airmen discussed the issues.

"A lot of people felt the airmen should have been approached in that breakroom," Technical Sgt. Julio Serrano said. There were also comments that people could taste whether there was alcohol in a drink and that "they should know their body."

The discussion was turned back toward predator behavior and away from victim-blaming, Serrano said. "Although (a female airman) can put themselves in that state, they're not asking for (sexual assault). We're trying to get away from finding a way to blame the victim.

"Comments like 'She drank too much' — that kind of mindset can prevent victims from reporting."

As individuals see a situation and interpret it as problematic, they are trained to accept responsibility, decide how to handle it and act, said Cathy Knight, the civilian sexual assault response coordinator at Beale.

"As each individual does this, it sets the example for others and becomes a self-sustaining part of our culture," Knight said. "It also speaks to survivors of sexual assault that we do not ignore, tolerate or condone offenders."

Knigh said a lot of people would want to say something, "it just takes one person to have the courage."

Lt. Siobhan Bennett said she's seen big changes and progress in the military's sexual assault training just in her two years in active duty in the Air Force.

She didn't know if she would "have the guts" to confront someone behaving inappropriately.

"I left thinking, 'What would I do?'" she said.

She and Serrano expressed pride in the program.

"I think we have a good opportunity to make a big impact on this critical area, and like any critical issue, it requires a change in culture, and it will take time," Bennett said.

There was a time when females weren't allowed to join the military. Now, woman can do just about any job a man can. The same sort of cultural shift is going to happen with sexual assault, she said.

'Resocialization' is part of process of changing attitudes

Empowering airmen to change their culture requires a resocialization process. The Air Force, after all, is a subsection of a larger society.

"You can't just expect 18- and 19-year-olds to change their behavior. It's a cultural shift," said Col. Phil Stewart, former commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale, who addressed all of the airmen on base about sexual assault before he left for another assignment.

"It's not something you just do once and move on," he said. "We constantly address it."

At Beale, each airman is educated about assault and told the Air Force will not tolerate sexual assault.

It's becoming a part of the process of becoming an airman.

When people join the military, they are held to a particular standard and will be taught to respect themselves and respect others, Stewart said.

They're taught what consent means, he said.

"If you weren't taught to treat the opposite gender with respect, this is going to be a shock for you," Stewart said. "I can't tell you how to raise your kids or treat your wife. ... I bundle it up as respect for yourself and respect for others."

He said he takes sexual assault seriously and personally, in part because he has a 15-year-old daughter.

He frequently hears the question, "Is it safe for girls to join the Air Force?"

"Of course I think it's safe to be a female in the military," he said. "I'm very proud of our program, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response; it's very victim-focused."

Beale has trained dozens of airmen as sexual assault advocates, and victims are provided with additional support through every step of the process in confronting the issue, from choosing whether to report to being provided with victim counseling through court-martial proceedings.

It's not uncommon, Stewart said, for a female airman to approach him with tears in her eyes to report a previous assault.

"About 12 percent of my cases were assaulted before they were in the military," he said. "They come forward now because they want to get help.

"You have to make the journey from being a victim to a survivor," he said.

"I'm proud of the progress we've made," Stewart said. "I challenge you to find a program that is more compassionate, more-victim focused and helps more victims become survivors more than the military and Beale Air Force Base. I just don't think you'll find it."

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