Sexual assault stops here!

  • Published
  • By Command Chief Master Sgt. Angelica Johnson
  • 81st Training Wing
As a young Airman in the Air Force I never thought I would have to say, "Sexual assault stops here, with me." As I reflect back over my career and all of my experiences, I do have some regrets. Don't get me wrong, the Air Force has been a wonderful career and life for the past 28 years. But looking back, knowing what I know now, I would have made some better choices when confronted with some very uncomfortable situations.

When I was a senior airman, I was stationed overseas for the first time. While I was excited to experience Japan, it seemed so far away and different from everything I was used to. Naturally, I looked to my Air Force family for some familiarity and comfort, and at the time, I felt I had joined a welcoming and cohesive team. My supervisor was a technical sergeant, and at first he was very helpful, engaged and professional. But, after a few months, he started focusing less on work, asking inappropriately personal questions and always seemed to be in my personal space. While I felt uncomfortable every time he'd try to massage my shoulders or put his arm around me, I never actually confronted him or told him to stop. Instead, I would walk away or avoid him as much as possible, hoping he'd get the hint. Big mistake...

I asked some of my female co-workers if they felt uncomfortable around him and most of them confirmed they did. Some actually warned me "not to cause trouble," because he was very well liked by the squadron leadership and he might retaliate as our supervisor. I listened to the warning, and stayed out of his way. Unfortunately, this would not be enough.

Soon after, I was assigned with my supervisor to the night shift during a base wide exercise. On one of the nights a small group of us were telling childhood stories and I mentioned I had two brothers. He suddenly wrestled me to the ground, sat on my chest, pinned my arms down with his knees and told me this was how he wrestled with his sisters. I yelled for him to get off of me and when he wouldn't, some of the other Airmen pushed him off. I was shocked and visibly shaken but he laughed and told me to chill out and stop being so serious all the time. We all went back to work without mentioning it again.

The final straw came during our squadron Christmas party. We were playing a game where we had to describe something to a teammate without speaking. While I was making gestures, he picked me up (I was in a dress), put me over his shoulder and carried me out of the room in front of the entire squadron. It was the most humiliating and embarrassing thing anyone had ever done to me. Both my commander and first sergeant witnessed the entire incident.

When I tried to report what happened to my superintendent, I was told what a great guy he was and that it was just a joke--he didn't mean anything by it. When I went to the inspector general, I was told that perhaps I overreacted, that he knew him personally from the base softball team and he could "vouch for him." I was then questioned as if I had done something wrong, "was I actually hurt or did he sexually abuse me in any way?" I could not confirm that I was hurt (besides my pride) or that I was sexually abused, so the entire matter was quickly dropped.

So, knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently? First of all, I would have told my supervisor I was not comfortable with him asking me inappropriate questions or touching me in any way. I would have encouraged other Airmen to do the same. I would have reported all incidents to my supervisor's boss and/or first sergeant. If that didn't work I would continue up the chain of command until there was resolution. Not saying or doing anything when someone in a position of power over you does something that is unprofessional is wrong and only adds to the problem.

You might be thinking, "This was really not an actual case of sexual assault." I agree it may not legally be sexual assault, but it was sexual harassment and grossly unprofessional. I believe this type of work environment is dangerous and could very well lead to sexual assault if allowed to continue unchecked. I regret not stepping up and doing my part to address the problem and change the work environment.

After the incident at our holiday party, my supervisor was deployed. While there, he was charged with sexually assaulting two young female Airmen. He was court-martialed, convicted, confined and received a bad conduct discharge after 18 years in service. I can't help but wonder if I, or the people in my squadron, could have stopped this tragedy.
I am proud to say our Air Force has come a long way since then. I am confident that Airmen are much more educated and informed about professional and unprofessional relationships, hostile work environments and sexual harassment and assault. Airmen are encouraged and empowered to come forward if they, or someone they know, is being victimized. Victims have an outstanding support system and keeping them safe is a top priority. I also believe leaders are taking action and holding their Airmen accountable. The question is--is it enough?

Based on the 30 percent increase in sexual assaults in the Air Force from 2011 to 2012, I would say it is not enough. It will take each Airman to be part of the solution and change the culture. Every Airman must commit now to stopping sexual assault. Every Airman must be willing to say, "Sexual assault stops here, with me!"