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A call to action -- Three ways to combat sexual assault

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - LACKLAND, Texas (AFNS) -- While moderating the U.S. Air Force Facebook page recently, I came across a question I found personally difficult to answer. The question was asked by a concerned parent preparing to send a daughter to basic training in light of a widespread sexual assault investigation. She asked, "Will my daughter be safe?"

It's difficult to reassure parents about their child's safety knowing the threat of sexual assault exists even beyond basic training. I've heard too many stories of service members who have experienced sexual trauma.

There were 3,192 reports of sexual assault in the military during fiscal 2011, according to an annual report by the Department of Defense. An estimated 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, bringing the total to approximately 19,000 sexual assaults per year. Do the math ... that's two assaults every hour in a population comparable to a single major U.S. city. Of those reporting, approximately 397 were men.

"Sexual assault has no place in this department. It is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and to the good honor of our service members and their families," said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the House and Senate Armed Service Committee April 13.

Top civilian and military leaders are working to define root causes for such widespread atrocity and to provide solutions to correct the problem. Nonprofit organizations, news media and bloggers are holding them accountable. New training was implemented and changes were made in reporting and investigation processes, but there's still work to be done.

Changing policies and processes is an invaluable component to ensuring the safety of our troops. However, I propose every service member, regardless of rank or position in the chain of command, is duty-bound to perpetuate change toward a military culture free from sexual assault.

The nation is calling on us to end military sexual assault and violence. Are you ready to answer the call? Our weapons will be intellect, self-awareness and social activism. Here are three ways we can all join in the fight:

1. Educate ourselves about elements in society that promote the false notion of feminine being inferior to masculine. Let's put our search engines to work and learn about things like gender stereotypes, consent, victim-blaming, sexual objectification, rape culture and the impact they have on society.

We can use what we learn to raise self-awareness, challenge the effect media has on our perception of gender dichotomy and help others see common, harmful messages in pop culture and how certain comments or jokes contribute to the damages.

2. Volunteer at the base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. There's always a need for advocates, especially in deployed locations, to provide immediate support to men and women who have been assaulted or raped. This type of work isn't for everybody, so if you feel you aren't a good fit, you can find other ways to help like organizing an awareness event.

3. Speak up when we hear jokes or comments that are sexist, hateful or demeaning toward people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or gender nonconforming. Tolerating these comments may unintentionally normalize a frame of mind that is consistent with rape and sexual assault. Most people aren't rapists, but we can't assume everybody within earshot understands we don't really mean what we say. These jokes can also give somebody experiencing harassment or assault the impression their unit will be unsupportive.

Believing the unit will be apologetic to the perpetrator, question a survivor's masculinity or use sexuality as "proof" that it must have been consensual may prevent somebody from seeking necessary help. We have to make it clear from the beginning that we'll be supportive.

I'm honored to work with men and women who uphold the ethical code citizens expect from our military. It's unfortunate a few bad seeds have infiltrated the military, but we don't have to give them room to grow. It's in our hands. This is not a mission for the faint of heart, but we are the U.S. military. Am I right?

Information from an American Forces Press Service news release was used in this commentary.

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