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Stepping in

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Eric Lapine
  • 509th Operations Support Squadron commander
About this time two years ago, our Air Force was making national news in the wake of reported sexual assaults in the ranks. Still more troubling was the estimated magnitude of unreported assaults and the unwillingness of bystanders to intervene or report them.

As part of the effort to combat harassment and assaults, there were several wing and squadron-wide Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) briefings and discussions. During our squadron-wide SAPR discussion, an airman announced that he had once stepped in to break up a case of sexual harassment, and was later disciplined by his commander for being part of the fight that ensued. At this moment a chorus of voices chimed in from the audience expressing a similar concern. Sensing that the success of our discussion was in jeopardy, I immediately stepped in to emphasize my policy on the matter. I stated that regardless of what they had seen in other organizations, I had the back of any of our squadron's troops that stepped in to help another. I added the caveat that this didn't mean you could start throwing punches at the next ball because someone approaches your date, bows deeply and while extending a white-gloved hand asks, "Shall I have the honor of this dance?" Rather, they should use the best common sense they can muster and in almost all cases, the act of stepping in will be enough to diffuse the situation and avoid conflict.

Nevertheless, when you step in to prevent any kind of harassment or assault, you do not have control over how the perpetrator of the crime will react.

In a few of these cases, the "Good Samaritan" can become the subject of violence because they interfere with the perpetrator's intentions, regardless of how calmly and reasonably they approach the situation. Does this mean we don't act? Does fear of personal injury, loss of friendship or possible injury to one's next performance report keep us from acting?

We take an oath to "Support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and DOMESTIC." Defending the Constitution can mean protecting a fellow citizen's unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness against other citizens who are attempting to deny those rights.

Occasionally, domestic enemies of the Constitution can even be found on Pine Street. One Friday night, several months after the SAPR briefings, Airman Jones (not his actual name) from the 509th Operations Support Squadron was relaxing with friends at one of the bars in Warrensburg, Mo. Jones was of legal drinking age and was responsibly enjoying an alcoholic beverage after a busy week. While there, he witnessed a male approach a group of females at the bar and use his phone to discretely take some "up the skirt" voyeur photos of several of the young ladies without their noticing. There are a few courses of action Jones could have taken to include doing nothing. However, wanting to stop the behavior immediately, he confronted the sexual assault perpetrator. Jones calmly but directly told the individual that he needed to stop what he was doing and to erase the photos he had already taken or he would call the police. In response to this, the perpetrator started swinging and Jones reluctantly fought back in self-defense.

The police soon arrived, calmed the situation and made the perpetrator erase all of the voyeur photos he had taken with his camera. As a result of the altercation, Jones needed quite a few stiches in his forehead, but the sexual assault had been stopped and the perpetrator went away with his own painful souvenirs of the consequences of his actions. The day had been saved and evil thwarted. However, Jones was now worried about the professional impact of getting into a bar fight. At first he received some bad advice from a fellow airman that he should hide the matter; lie about the source of his injury and hope his commander never found out. Of note; there is no mistake you can make, no matter how grievous, that cannot be made still worse by lying about it. Instead, Jones came clean and squared his shoulders to accept whatever the consequences would be.

Airman Jones was surprised that the consequences of his stepping in were to be recognized in front of the entire squadron, coined by the Commander and given a two-day pass. There may be those who feel that Airman Jones should have avoided the altercation at all costs and could have handled it differently. I disagree. I would rather someone act instead of just watch an illegal, immoral or unethical action take place and wait for someone else to step in. I feel strongly that part of eliminating harassment and assault in our ranks is to show tolerance, leniency and a huge benefit of the doubt to airmen who step in to thwart evil, even if their attempts unintentionally exceed what we might deem necessary. I personally reserve the full measure of my intolerance for those who perpetrate sexual harassment and assault as well as those who stand by and allow it to happen. Good order and discipline in the ranks is maintained by those willing to step in to rescue those in need, airman or not, regardless of the consequences. After all, the intense focus on SAPR is not a result of our collective overzealousness in enforcing it.