In the military it is instilled in you that the person to your left and right may one day be responsible for saving your life. The worst-case scenario is you could be on the battlefield and must depend on someone you don’t know to help you survive. That’s powerful and it stays with you long after you leave service. I believe this is an unspoken bond, unique to Veterans. And in my opinion, that this is why the effects of sexual violence in the military are even harder to overcome; Veterans often struggle long after they leave the service.
In 2008, I was selected to become the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) for our Brigade. At that time I was working as an Equal Opportunity Advisor (EOA)/Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager and typically, an EOA should not be doing SARC duties, but I took on the challenge, as our Brigade needed a SARC for an upcoming deployment. I had no idea what that duty entailed but I wasn’t deterred, as I knew it was an opportunity to help people. I was first trained as a Victim Advocate (4 hours of training). The following day, I was trained as a SARC (another 4 hours) through the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Pro. Later that year, the Army established the Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP), which was a one-week course that trained you on how to support victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment The course has improved over time and continues to evolve to meet the needs of the time.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the amount of humane experience was about to come at me like a fire hose. I hypothetically “drank from the fire hose” as one sexual assault or harassment occurred, and then another, and another. I had to focus on the needs of these Soldiers and provide them the best support possible. My training prepared me to use the available process; what it didn’t prepare me for is how to emotionally support these individuals. That came with practice and dialogue with program managers. With any support method, there is a “cookie cutter,” or template you use, to build confidence in yourself and improve your skills. I didn’t have that luxury and had to figure it out on my own.
I approached each survivor as if they were someone I deeply cared about, like a son, daughter, wife, or husband. This sounds easy, but as humans we are wired to protect ourselves from any level of danger. I felt this conflict and recognized that to better serve the needs of the people, I had to ensure my biases and barriers were removed and put all my focus on them. SHARP training provided me that ability by teaching me how sexual violence impacts the victim and how I could support them in their transition to becoming a survivor. Sexual violence is about power and taking that power from the individual(s) to meet a selfish want by the offender. My duty was to help everyone in their journey to regain their power.
When we deployed, I worked with an amazing team of SARCs from each branch of the military. Our personnel worked together and there were many incidents that involved cross-branch sexual violence. This was the next level of my training. Having to fly or drive to Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in a combat zone to support a survivor of sexual violence was very stressful and dangerous at times. As I stated in the beginning, we are trained that we are responsible for the safety of the person to the left and right. This was a different type of support that didn’t involve the enemy; it was from within.
The diversity of sexual violence occurring was shocking to military leaders. Reports of men on men, women on women, and women on men was atypical of the way many of us believed sexual violence occurred. After all, sexual violence is about “POWER,” right? Questions I would typically get are: “So how can a woman overpower a man? Or, “how can a man allow another man to do that to him?” And, “what does a woman on woman sexual assault even look like?” All very good questions and the SHARP program (during my time) provided actual reports (no names, just age and gender) of incidents from each military branch. I used these and personal examples to show that it’s not a man vs. woman issue; sexual violence can happen to anyone, regardless of gender.
The struggle occurring in our society is the willingness to let go and evolve from what was taught to us growing up and through examples in the media (T.V., internet, movies etc.). The topic of sexual violence is one that has evolved and has gained more awareness since the recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in 2001. With shows like Law & Order SVU, the topic and real-life examples that have been taboo to talk about, have come out in full view. From sex workers, child rape, missing and murdered indigenous women movements, and the #MeToo movement, have brought this stain of evil that is happening in our homes, workplaces, and all around us out into the open and provided better opportunities for survivors to heal.
My biggest tools to combat sexual violence are awareness and accountability. The awareness is happening, and the momentum must continue. It should also shift towards already marginalized communities that have been forgotten or deprived of the support they need. Additionally, we need to understand the effects that sexual violence has on male survivors. Eliminating the stigma that it’s somehow solely tied to homosexuality is key.
The offenders who perpetrate these violent acts must be held accountable. And, there must also be accountability for all of us, to educate ourselves on how to intervene when we see the signs. We need to do better at supporting one another as human beings and be intentional in our efforts to make everyone feel safe and not just at times when it’s convenient for us. See something, say something, and be an active bystander. If I’m ever in a situation where I need help, I would hope someone would step in to help me in my time of need.
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