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Take Back the Night 2015: 'Shattering the Silence'

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks to U.S. Air Force Academy cadets April 16, 2015, in the Academy’s Clune Arena, Colorado, during the Academy's second annual Take Back the Night event. The secretary told cadets that if a wingman is in trouble they have to say "no" to crude behavior, hazing and being silent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kenneth Bellard)

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks to U.S. Air Force Academy cadets April 16, 2015, in the Academy’s Clune Arena, Colorado, during the Academy's second annual Take Back the Night event. The secretary told cadets that if a wingman is in trouble they have to say "no" to crude behavior, hazing and being silent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kenneth Bellard)

Cadets hold up glow sticks in the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Clune Arena, Colorado, April 16, 2015, to represent the number of sexual assault victims at the Academy during the last 10 years, during the Academy's second annual Take Back the Night event. At the event, cadets heard messages from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Katie Koestner, the first survivor to speak out nationally about date rape. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kenneth Bellard)

Cadets hold up glow sticks in the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Clune Arena, Colorado, April 16, 2015, to represent the number of sexual assault victims at the Academy during the last 10 years, during the Academy's second annual Take Back the Night event. At the event, cadets heard messages from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Katie Koestner, the first survivor to speak out nationally about date rape. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kenneth Bellard)

Katie Koestner, the executive director of the Take Back the Night Foundation, encouraged U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to know their part in ending sexual violence at the Academy's second annual Take Back the Night event, April 16, 2015, at the Academy’s Clune Arena, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Liz Copan)

Katie Koestner, the executive director of the Take Back the Night Foundation, encouraged U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to know their part in ending sexual violence at the Academy's second annual Take Back the Night event, April 16, 2015, at the Academy’s Clune Arena, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Liz Copan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) -- Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, along with the first survivor to speak out nationally about date rape, spoke to cadets during the U.S. Air Force Academy's second annual Take Back the Night (TBN) event April 16 at Clune Arena.

Katie Koestner, the executive director of the TBN Foundation, recounted details of being sexually assaulted at 18 years old, encouraging cadets to know their part in ending sexual violence.

"I'm personally honored to speak and share my story with cadets because there is no more personal way to go about motivation than to say, 'This can affect real lives and real human beings in ways that don't heal themselves quickly or easily,’” Koestner said in an interview before the event.

At TBN, James told cadets that if a wingman is in trouble they have to say "no" to crude behavior, hazing and being silent.

"We need to rid of attitudes placing blame on the victims and place responsibility on the shoulders of the perpetrator," she said. "Beliefs such as 'men can't be raped' or 'women who've been drinking are at fault for being assaulted' are myths that keep victims from reporting and keep us from achieving the goal of preventing sexual assault in the first place."

James asked cadets to make an equal commitment and assume responsibility, to defend each other against the crime of sexual assault.

"We're making progress in the Air Force but it's not good enough," she said. "Our work is not done and we need to keep the focus on prevention. We need to show persistent focus, leadership and action, and together we can make it happen. Together we can defeat sexual criminals, cultivate a culture of dignity and respect and an environment free from sexual assault."

In 1990, Koestner was a freshman at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, when a man she had been dating for less than two weeks assaulted her. In 1991, she appeared on the cover of the magazine TIME, publicizing her experience. In 1993, HBO produced a movie about her story and since, Koestner has shared her story worldwide at thousands of schools, organizations and military bases to inform and empower others to put an end to sexual assault.

"As an Air Force Academy cadet, you don't ever leave an Airman behind," she said. "It's having the courage of shattering the silence and speaking up when silence would be the easiest way out. I don't want anyone to ever say 'It doesn't fit in my schedule,’ to spend five minutes to intervene. Saving a life doesn't just mean saving someone from bleeding to death or who can't get enough oxygen. It includes saving someone from a lifetime of not being able to be in healthy relationship again because their trust is so broken."

It's important to focus on how men can make a difference, Koestner said.

"It's not just a women's issue," she said. "It's a people issue and it's one that we need to be united on. One of the catchphrases for TBN is, 'The people united will never be divided.'"

TBN is the Academy's centerpiece for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. At the end of the evening, cadets raised glow sticks to shine light on their role in eliminating sexual assault and supporting victims of the crime.

Nearly 400 red glow sticks glistened to represent sexual assault victims here in the last 10 years.

"We want to allow individuals to proclaim that they have the right to walk freely within their communities day or night without any harassment or sexual assault in their way," said Col. Carrie Bausano, the vice commandant of culture and climate. "We want them to feel empowered to take these education pieces and let victims, whether military or civilian, know they can come forward to report sexual assault."

Cadet squadrons, athletic teams and other units here designed T-shirts campaigning against sexual violence, including slogans such as "Hurts one, affects all," "Stand up, speak out," and "H.O.P.E. -- Hold on, pain ends."

"It's our chance to step up and highlight the institution's efforts as a whole year and throughout Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)," said Cadet 1st Class Avery Larkin, a cadet wing personal ethics and education representative. "It's a chance for us to come together and reflect on what our role is to prevent sexual assault and actively support victims. It also gives cadets a chance to come together as a cadet wing and be reminded of an issue that affects everyone."

The event was open to all Academy personnel and Defense Department ID cardholders. This year's SAAM theme is: "Know your part, do your part."

All are affected by sexual assault regardless of race, religion, social background or gender, Koestner said.

"It's important to paint an inclusive picture about the problem," she said. “No one should ever threaten your right to feel comfortable here. There is no alternative Academy to go to. It's even more important you all hold each other to the highest standards of respect because respect is so critical to helping us solve this problem."

Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams hosted the event and said the conversation on sexual assault must continue here.

"Why are we letting this happen within our own ranks to our own brothers and sisters in arms?" Williams asked cadets. "If you don't have the courage to stop this kind of behavior, how will you have the courage to sacrifice your life for one another? We need to enable an environment here that supports survivors while addressing the ongoing problem of sexual assault. Don't look to others to fix this. This is everybody's problem."

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