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Picking up the pieces: Commander’s role in sexual assault response

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Editor's note: In this series on reporting a sexual assault we wanted to look at each step in the process for a "typical" sexual assault case on an Air Force installation. Last week we focused on the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator's role. This week we'll focus on the commander's role. Next week, we'll look at law enforcement. The final week, we'll look at the legal side of things.

Airman Doe left the SARCs office after deciding to make her report unrestricted. Her victim advocate made sure she still felt safe in the dorms and asked her to consider scheduling a counseling appointment with a professional counselor.

Now that her report was unrestricted, she couldn't get two things off her mind. "What are my parents going to think? What is my commander going to do?"

Whenever the SARC logs a new sexual assault case, the information goes to the installation vice commander. At Tinker, that's Col. Stephen Wood, whose job is to ensure there is a "viable and fully functioning sexual assault response program serving every unit on this installation."

Colonel Wood is not made aware of the personal details of restricted reports, but with unrestricted reports, he receives updates from the SARC, law enforcement and Airman Doe's chain of command.

Once Airman Doe's commander is notified of the unrestricted report, they would try to make contact with the victim, said Lt. Col. Geoffrey Weiss, 964th Airborne Air Control Squadron commander.

"Care will be taken not to "grill" the victim for details but primarily to listen, take notes, and ensure the victim understands all the support personnel available, for example, a victim's advocate, a chaplain, a personal friend, a family member, etc.," Colonel Weiss said.

However, unlike the SARC, whose primary job is to care for the victim, the commander must be focused always on his or her No. 1 priority...the unit's mission, said Colonel Weiss. So how does the sexual assault on Airman Doe affect the mission?

"A sexual assault threatens the mission because it is a crime that negatively influences the health and well being of the unit's Airmen," Colonel Weiss said.

How Airman Doe's commander responds to her report depends mostly on her.

"There is no prescribed way for a commander to act. It all depends on each case's unique circumstances. But the priority of the initial response is focusing on the victim and making sure she has people to support her," Colonel Wood said.

However, since Airman Doe and her assailant are in the same unit, Colonel Wood said it's important for the commander to maintain objectivity.

"The commander is looking at an OSI investigation. Based on the outcomes of that investigation, this commander may have to punish someone, or maybe there's not enough evidence to prosecute. If Airman Doe's commander is not taking half a step back, that may affect their objectivity," Colonel Wood said. "In my mind, that's why the SARC and victim advocates are so important. The SARC and Victim Advocate's sole responsibility is to support the victim"

Because the commander must be focused on overall unit mission and morale, this includes the victim, the accused and their friends as well.

"It is possible that both parties will require support and close supervision to look for signs of depression or suicidal ideation following this traumatic event," Colonel Weiss said.

Airman Doe's commander is also facing a unique challenge. How do I keep unit cohesion if word gets out and other Airmen begin taking sides in this case? This divisiveness often happens in a "he said/she said" type of case, said Michelle Loughlin, Tinker's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

"The victim is going to feel defeated, maybe disgraced, the offender may feel wrongly accused and their friends in the unit are going to be sidetracked by that," Colonel Wood said.

This is why Col. Wood believes that confidentiality is important even in unrestricted cases. Doing as much as possible to protect identities helps ensure victim privacy and prevent any blowback before the law enforcement investigation is completed.

In the long run, after and regardless of the outcome of criminal trials or military discipline, it may be in the best interest of the unit and the individuals for Airman Doe's commander to re-assign her if she requests it. But before doing this, the commander would have to make a "full assessment" of factors, including medical provider's advice, career field advisors input and the needs of the Air Force, Colonel Weiss said.

If Airman Doe's assault is not an isolated case, but one in a string of disturbing incidents in the unit, her commander may choose to mandate remedial training for the entire unit in Bystander Intervention, or Sexual Assault prevention, and enlist the SARC to talk to Airmen about their behavior choices.

As a commander, it can be hard to heavily promote personal responsibility in this area, because there is a fine line between risk management and what some people consider victim blaming, Colonel Wood said. But, he believes it's important for Airmen to have a plan.

"It's important that Airmen go out as Wingmen, have a plan and stick to that plan. Don't leave friends behind at parties or bars or with people they don't know," Colonel Wood said. "Knowing this and teaching this doesn't mean we can't fully support our victim, who, according to the facts of this case, has been terribly mistreated."

Colonel Weiss agrees commanders must be proactive regarding sexual assault prevention.

"When it comes to sexual assault, a commander's first responsibility is not simply the response to them - it is to prevent them from happening in the first place. We must emphasize that there is a zero tolerance policy with sexual assault and sexual harassment," Colonel Weiss said.

Airmen Doe feels better now that her chain of command is in the loop. She doesn't feel like she's hiding. She's not sure what to expect from her interview with the OSI agents, but she knows that she has to move forward even if there is not promise of a trial.