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Ohio Guard trains advocates to help sexual assault victims

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Soldiers and airmen were learning yesterday how to help fellow troops who have been sexually assaulted or harassed.

As part of the training, the instructor asked them to call out words that people might use to describe military culture.

Strong, said one. Resilient, said another. Then came disciplined and heroic. The descriptions were nearly all positive.

The instructor, former Army combat medic Nykita Riley, pushed harder, looking for words that might explain why soldiers wouldn't report a sexual assault.

The military is thought of as violent, one student said. Then came aggressive, chauvinistic and arrogant.

"If you are assaulted, you may feel like you have given up some of the good traits," said Master Sgt. Eric Ball, airfield manager for the 180th Fighter Wing in Toledo, and a student yesterday.

"You feel that you have lost strength," he said. "You feel that you are not heroic."

The training that Riley led yesterday at Defense Supply Center Columbus was largely for Ohio National Guard members. She grew up in Columbus and is now a sexual harassment/assault response and prevention manager for the Army Corps of Engineers in Cincinnati. Military leaders must prevent sexual assault and punish perpetrators, said those at yesterday's training. But the leaders also need to provide an environment that allows victims to report the crimes without stigma.

"As a female, you try to be seen as not different," said Ohio National Guard Sgt. Sarah Thompson, who works in administration at Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center near Youngstown. "As soon as something happens, it's hard to deny that you are different."

The issue of sexual assault in the military exploded last month when the Pentagon reported that an estimated 26,000 troops experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012 but only 3,374 filed sexual-assault claims.

The Ohio National Guard handled four cases of sexual assault in 2012, said Capt. Matthew Martling, the Guard's sexual-assault response coordinator. It is working on eight cases so far this year, though one of those is actually from five years ago.

That's not so much an indication of more assaults this year as it is an indication that people are becoming more comfortable reporting them, he said.

Part of the reason is the kind of training taking place this week, he said. Four years ago, the Ohio National Guard began a program to train at least one person in each unit to be a victim advocate. Soldiers or airmen who experience harassment or assault can go to those advocates for help.

So far, 149 advocates have been trained. This week's classes will help add about 35 more.

The Ohio Guard began a related program in February to educate people in leadership positions — commanders, officers, noncommissioned officers — about sexual harassment and assault, Martling said.

Riley, the instructor, said that there is plenty of work left to do throughout the military. She was a combat medic with 14 years in the Army and two tours in Iraq and still experienced harassment and inappropriate contact, she said.

She tells her classes about the time she was in Germany and a superior called her "stuck up" and asked her to perform oral sex on him.

"People outside of the military might think that's extreme," she said. "It's not that extreme in the armed forces."

jeb.phillips@dispatch.com
 

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