Robins halts work for sexual assault prevention training

wcrenshaw@macon.comJune 21, 2013 

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- Nearly all of Robins was in a stand-down Friday in an effort to curb sexual assault.

Across the base work halted, and training sessions were held for civilians and military members to address a problem the Department of Defense has identified as a priority. The stand-down is mandatory for all bases, said Col. Chris Hill, commander of the 78th Air Base Wing, although not on the same day.

“Sexual assault is a cancer in our culture, and we need to cut it out and kill it,” Hill said. “We owe it to America, who puts a lot of faith and trust in what we do. We owe it to the Air Force, and most importantly we owe it to each other.”

A confidential survey of military members released in May determined 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in 2012, with only 11 percent reported. That prompted President Barack Obama to order the Department of Defense to address the problem.

Two days before the report was released, the officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention unit was arrested following accusations that he grabbed a woman’s breast and buttocks in a parking lot. The alleged victim said he was drunk.

Hill said a sexual assault can range from rape to an unwanted attempt at sexual contact. At Robins, he said, there were four reports of sexual assault in 2010, 11 in 2011, and 14 in 2012. He wouldn’t discuss the number of cases this year because he said those are still under investigation.

Cindy Graver, sexual assault response coordinator at Robins, said she believes the reason for the increase is that people are feeling more comfortable with reporting sexual assault. Victims have been both men and women.

“I think they have faith in the system that we are taking it seriously and we will follow through and that the victims are getting the care they need,” she said.

They declined to discuss the nature of the cases reported at Robins.

“It would be unfair to generalize this because it is such an individual crime,” Hill said. “To paint this with a broad brush, I would say it’s insensitive.”

Graver said the cases most commonly occur among those in the 20- to 24-year-old age group, and alcohol is involved about 70 percent of the time. Those statistics, she said, mirror that of sexual assaults in the civilian world.

During a break from one training session, Master Sgt. Marjorie Mitchell said she found the discussion helpful and believed it would make an impact.

“It’s interesting, some of the points they brought up,” she said. “Hopefully, people will listen to it. I think it’s a bigger problem than just us. It goes back to family, teaching and society.”

The stand-down was only for part of the day, and different units held the training at different times.

The Air Force Reserve Command Headquarters and 116th Air Control Wing, a Georgia Air National Guard unit, were not involved in the stand-down.

Those units will schedule another day when the part-time members are in for regular weekend training.

The training was voluntary for union members, but many participated. Hill said he was at one standing-room-only session that was “full of red shirts.” Union members commonly wear red shirts on Friday as a show of support for the military.

Part of the training was making people aware of the importance of reporting sexual assault and the help available to them, Graver said.

If a stand-down day isn’t enough to show how serious the Department of Defense is about the problem, funding has been provided to increase the sexual assault response staff at Robins from two to five in an era of significant spending cuts.

Also, Hill said the Office of Special Investigations looks into all allegations of sexual assault on base, and agents are getting specialized training.

In January a special victims council was established to provide legal expertise in sexual assault cases.

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