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AF sexual assault prevention: moving in the right direction

“I was raised in a household where you take responsibility for your own actions and don’t blame others for your downfalls,” said Tech. Sgt. Kathleen Thorburn. “Instead of seeing a crime that had occurred, all I could see were my mistakes. Why did I go to that party? Why did I accept the drink? Why did I laugh at their jokes? Why didn’t I scream?”

Thorburn was sexually assaulted by a co-worker she trusted shortly after joining the Air Force. She’d been invited to a party by one of her instructors and encouraged to drink and take shots of alcohol, even though she was underage. Though she can’t remember all the details from the night, she clearly remembers her ride leaving, being led into a bedroom and waking up with someone on top of her.

“The next day I woke up in a haze … confused by missing clothes, where I was, and what had happened,” she said. “Although, I was very aware of the fact that someone had been inside of me and it hurt down there.”

She was convinced by a friend to report the incident to her chain of command, which ultimately resulted in an investigation by Air Force Office of Special Investigations and a Letter of Reprimand for underage drinking. This was before the SAPR program had really been implemented, so after the paperwork, she was switched to a new team and no one spoke with her about the incident again.

“At the time, that’s what I wanted,” she said. “I was a brand new Airman. I had only been in the shop for a couple of weeks and I just wanted this to go away. Sometimes when I think about it, I feel guilty that I didn’t do more and ‘let’ him walk away, because who knows if he might have done the same thing to someone else.”

Shortly after this incident, the options of restricted and non-restricted reporting of sexual assaults were introduced to the Air Force; a concept Thorburn believes really helped change the way the service deals with victims and sexual assault for the better.

“After that happened to me, not one person asked if I needed to talk to a counselor … not one person suggested I go to medical for a checkup, but that was fine with me because at the time I just wanted it to go away,” she said. “But two months later, they announced restricted and non-restricted reporting and I thought, ‘That would have been helpful a few months ago.’ I think going restricted would have been a good option for me.”

She said the changes in reporting protocols also came with additional training and education about how to assist victims, which she believes helped change the culture.

“When I think about my leadership at the time and how little training and experience they must have had dealing with sexual assault and how much training everyone receives today … I think today we are much better equipped to deal with it,” she said. “There is a greater understanding of sexual assault.”

Thorburn said the culture at the time made it easy for her to pretend her assault didn’t happen, which is what she tried to do.

Hurt, angry, frustrated and confused, following the assault, she said she began to try to move on with her life. It wasn’t until she was approached by her new supervisor, who offered moral support and empathy, that she realized what had happened to her was wrong, but that she could rise above it.

“It took me a long time to even admit to myself or agree with the fact that I had been raped,” she said. “I could agree verbally, but I could not fully accept it. Years went by and it was constantly in the back of my mind, yet I was always ignoring it and pretending it didn’t happen. Slowly, but surely, I began to come to terms with what happened.”

Right around that time, the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator began to look for victim advocates (VA) to support the new program and assist in victim recovery, and Thorburn took her first step toward recovery.

“No one was really there for me when I needed help, and a VA may have been just the person that could have helped me,” she said. “I wanted to take what I learned and gained from this horrific event in my life and help someone else.”

Before she would be able to fully help someone else, she knew she would need to face her own past head on.

“I’m not very good at journaling, but I do believe in spoken word,” she said. “I no longer fully believed that it was my fault, but I knew I that I could never help someone else if I could not admit what happened to me. I was a seeing a counselor at the time, and one day I just sat down in her office and explained my story from beginning to end — it was liberating. I told a couple of my best friends and it was even more liberating. No longer did I have this secret to hide.”

After that defining point in her life, Thorburn joined the Sexual Assault and Prevention Response Program and became an active participant.

“With each new event I became more and more confident in myself,” she said. “I think the feelings I have, I will have for the rest of my life, but it gets better.”

As part of her work as an advocate against sexual assault, she speaks out against myths regarding alcohol use and sexual assault.

“Sexual assault is not a side effect of drinking,” she said. “Just because you’ve been drinking does not equal rape. Dizziness, headaches and nausea are all side effects of drinking, but rape is not one of them.”

Thorburn said it’s important to teach Airmen about responsible drinking practices and being good wingmen, but it’s just as important, if not more so, to talk to them about sexual assault and respecting other people.

“Air Force training has become more assailant based and it’s great that it’s shifted focus from victim blaming,” she said. “Assailant based training, I think, addresses so many questions about what happens to people after the assault and what happens to the assailant and I think that’s a good way to go. We’re moving in the right direction, working toward prevention and not just response.”

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