FALLS CHURCH, Virginia —
Across the Air Force, Airmen and their families have access to Sexual Assault Prevention and Response or Family Advocacy Program resources to get support and guidance on how to move forward.
Sexual assault can be a deeply traumatizing event in anyone’s life. It can affect their well-being, change their behavior, and affect Airmen’s ability to complete the mission.
“Each individual copes with trauma in their own unique way,” said Capt. Claudia Santos, deputy operations branch chief for Air Force SAPR. “The SAPR program is designed to facilitate a victim’s transition to a survivor by connecting them with the professionals they need to heal, seek justice, and return to their unit mission ready.”
Every Air Force installation has a SAPR office, staffed by Sexual Assault Response Coordinators or SAPR Victim Advocates. They have a background in social work or advocacy to help address the needs of sexual assault victims and guide them to other resources.
“The intent is to ensure they have the appropriate resources, education and support system to go through the process in whichever way they need,” Santos said.
The Air Force offers two reporting options for sexual assault victims, allowing them to choose their course of action. If a victim wishes to maintain more private but would like advocacy or medical services, SAPR offers the restricted option. If a victim wants to pursue prosecution or wish to have chain of command be involved, the unrestricted option is available.
“The one constant throughout this whole process is that the SAPR team is there to support the victim to the extent they want or need,” Santos said. “We are not going to push in one direction or the other, but empower them to make the right decision for their case and facilitate support accordingly.”
Prior to making a report, victims are educated on which resources are available to them and what level of confidentiality they each have. The fear that a reported assault will not be kept private may keep many victims from reporting. But Santos assures that report information is limited to those only with a need to know based on the selected reporting option.
“The Air Force and the SAPR program have made great strides in ensuring there are professionals and safeguards in place to protect victim privacy,” Santos said. “There is also a misconception out there about false reporting. False reports of sexual assault are very rare in both the military and civilian sector, ranging between 2-8 percent.”
Another common misconception is that sexual assault only happens to women and not to men.
“Men often don’t think this could happen to them or that if they report, no one would believe that they are a victim,” Santos said. “The reality is that men do experience sexual assault, but culturally sexual violence against men is often viewed as hazing, physical abuse, or humiliation.”
SARCs and Victim Advocates work hard to address those barriers and misconceptions as much as possible, but fellow Airmen also play a big part in supporting victims of sexual assault.
“The best thing we can do as fellow Airmen is to be supportive of somebody that comes forward, and not judge or jump to your own conclusions about what happened,” Santos said. “Be aware of the resources available, suggest to the victim that they reach out to a SARC or FAP representative, help them find the number, or ask if they need to be taken to the hospital. Just being present can make a huge difference.”
Fellow Airmen also play a critical role in sexual assault prevention. According to Santos, each Airman plays a part in fostering a culture of dignity and respect that does not condone nor tolerate sexual assault or harassment.
“As more Airmen are empowered to speak out against inappropriate behavior or take action, the more protected our people are to execute the mission in a safe environment,” Santos said.