Stop the blame, be a wingman

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Eyes roll, irritation begins, and we can predict what will be said. These are common reactions to the numerous Sexual Assault Prevention and Response briefings we all have to endure annually, or more often, as part of the Air Force … but why? Why has SAPR become so humdrum, so status quo and so disregarded?

Now, imagine the person you care for the most — your spouse, sibling, best friend or child — walking down the street and suddenly being attacked by either a stranger or someone they know well. What would be your initial reaction? Would you ask what he or she was wearing, why that street was chosen, how many drinks were consumed before walking down that street, was it the first time walking down that street, how many times before, or what did he or she do to trigger the attack on the street? Would you find a way to blame him or her for the attack? 

No. This would likely not be your reaction. You would likely make sure this person you cared for was OK, ask what happened, get the care needed and ask how you could help find the attacker and get some sort of justice.

Sarah, fresh out of technical training and on her first temporary duty, went to dinner with a good female friend — whom she trusted. They met up with two male friends afterwards. Sarah barely knew one of the males, but she knew the other male well because he had previously dated her roommate. All four of them went to a bar to have a fun night and relax a bit. After a beer, Sarah and her female friend went to the restroom. Upon returning, Sarah had another beer, and then the night went blank — along with her memory of the rest of the night, which would take a very dark turn.

Sarah awoke in her hotel room, naked, with the guy she knew well. She immediately felt something was very wrong and felt disgusted. In the shower, she tried to wash off the shame, confusion, and sheer horror of what she concluded had happened. She called her ‘trusted’ female friend, who later met her to discuss the previous night’s events. 

The friend recounted that they all left the bar, and the male Sarah knew well was in the back seat with Sarah. She told Sarah he repeatedly forced kisses on her although Sarah kept saying, “I can’t do this” and “I have a boyfriend.” She also told Sarah she thought Sarah had been drugged, and she knew Sarah could not give consent to what was going on. 

Although this should have been a red flag for the trusted friend, she did nothing to intervene. She went to her own car and drove home, leaving Sarah without a wingman and unable to defend herself, forcing Sarah to endure an experience that would change her life forever.

Sarah continued to grapple with what happened to her and did not want anyone to know due to fear of being ostracized, blamed, further shamed and doubted. Upon returning from her temporary duty, Sarah attended a SAPR training session, where two female senior noncommissioned officers were victim-blaming. Although Sarah told the SARC about her incident, seeing the reactions of others made her feel like she couldn’t truly reveal her experience to her fellow Airmen.

It wasn’t until a few years later when Sarah attended another SAPR training session that she found a chance to let someone know what happened to her. During the full-day, intense training session, Sarah was overwhelmed by her experience and walked out. A wingman followed to check on her, and she decided to let her guard down and tell her story, allowing her to come to terms with what truly happened. 

The wingman helped Sarah understand her options, highlighting that there were several venues to receive help. Sarah decided to file an unrestricted report that would involve the chain of command. Upon filing the unrestricted report, she learned that her attacker had been involuntarily separated from the Air Force one month prior due to disciplinary issues. The military’s hands were tied. Her search for justice was over as quickly as it had begun; her attacker would never answer for what he did to her.

Staff Sgt. Sarah Frederick could have let this destroy her. She could have spiraled into isolation, depression and despair. There is no doubt she has her bad days and moments where she struggled, but she decided not to let the attack define her — since she is much more than a survivor. She is a wife, a mother, a friend, an analyst, a dependable co-worker and, most importantly in regards to this story, she is a beacon of light that chose to share her story so that others may avoid experiencing the trauma she endured. She continues to share her story to help stop the blame, to help empower bystanders, and to help strengthen the resolve of wingmen everywhere.

Don’t ignore red flags. Don’t be afraid to stand up to someone who you feel has bad intentions against someone else. Don’t let sexual assault awareness training and the numerous briefings we attend be done in vain. Use the training, the tools, the scenarios, the stories and the fact that this could happen to anyone close to you, or even you. Use all of these resources to stop these horrific events at the beginning of the continuum, before it happens to those we care about.

In my opinion, sexual assault denial by those not directly affected is mostly about a lack of empathy and a surplus of judgement. We are a family. Being a wingman should be more than a punchline. Defending your troops and co-workers should be inherent to each and every one of us. We are only as strong as our weakest member, and we need to all do our part to ensure that we keep each other safe. 

Sarah needed a strong wingman that night. She needed a voice. We failed her. Don’t fail a “Sarah” in your unit or at your base. Be the voice. Be the wingman. Be the light.