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Training, ‘Speaking Up’ Key to Fighting Sexual Assault

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Erich B. Smith,
  • National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - The fight against the scourge of sexual assault in the National Guard continues as its senior leaders implement “lines of effort” to eradicate the ongoing problem.

With an emphasis on Guard support to the 2022 National Defense Strategy, Air Force Maj. Gen. Wendy Wenke said tackling sexual assault comes down to supporting Soldiers and Airmen.

“Taking care of our people and providing a safe environment free of harassment and assault enables our service members to focus on training — so when the time does come to support their local community and state during an emergency or get called up to support a federal mission, they are ready,” she said.

Wenke is the director of the National Guard Bureau’s manpower and personnel directorate, which heads the Sexual Assault and Prevention Response program division responsible for implementing the Defense Department’s policy on SAPR programs and training.

She said the Army and Air National Guard are in alignment as senior leaders determine what best practices need to be implemented throughout the 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia.

“The past two years, we’ve worked very hard to unify the program and take a holistic approach,” Wenke said. “In other words, we’ve always been on the response side, but we’re now incorporating how to get left of an incident, or in front of it, to include dedicated prevention personnel, improved accountability and training.”

That training, she added, involves modernizing efforts that augment PowerPoint slides with improved scenario-based vignettes and small group discussions. But training will continue to home in on SAPR processes and rights if sexual assault occurs. 

In addition, senior leaders and SAPR personnel are examining ways to enhance accountability tracking throughout the reporting process. Wenke said this involves “diving down into what exactly is going on” and analyzing data from incidents while asking pertinent questions.

“Are there particular organizations [where the incidents took place]? Are there particular victims and perpetrators? Are there particular times of the days [when the incidents took place]?” Wenke said.

Once data is reviewed, leaders and SAPR personnel can identify trends to provide the means for “a unit commander to know where they need to take action and what they need to do to get left of the incident — to stop it,” she explained.

While sexual assault is blind to the perpetrator and victim’s sex, Wenke noted that men’s sexual assault is one of the most underreported impact areas.

“Data has shown us that over the past year, the National Guard has more men reporting [sexual assault] than in past years,” Wenke said.

For Heath Phillips, a sexual assault prevention advocate and survivor, silence had horrible consequences. His assault lasted 10 months as a Sailor in the Navy. 

“Nobody ever helped me. Nobody ever stood up for me. Everyone stayed silent,” he said, adding that mindset was all too prevalent during his time aboard a ship.

For this reason, Phillips has shared his story at more than 300 SAPR events while professing the slogan “Be The Change.”

“I just want people to change because the more they stay silent, the easier it is for perpetrators because they know nobody’s going to speak up,” he said.

Though open communication will not work miracles overnight, Phillips said he “hammers” audiences that sharing stories and speaking up promotes a culture of trust and shared understanding — while defeating the stigma of seeking help.

“I’m not going to say we’re going to stop [all] sexual assaults, but we can definitely lower numbers and make it incredibly hard for perpetrators — because now we’re speaking up and reaching out,” he said.

As a mother of a current and former service member, Wenke likened ongoing efforts to eradicate sexual assault within the ranks to that of a family.

“When your children decide to serve, you want them to go into an environment where they will not be harmed by those they serve with,” she said. “And then, as a member, you want to know you’re joining a family you can trust.”

Not having that trust, she added, can have devastating outcomes.

“If we allow this to exist in our system, it breaks down those you have to trust and rely on when it comes to combat. And that is not good for readiness. It’s not good for recruiting, it’s not good for retention, and most importantly, it’s not good for the individual,” she said. “It permeates a family when it is not dealt with for years.”

To report an incident of sexual assault or harassment, contact the Department of Defense Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247.