On Guard against sexual violence

“Most people never commit sexual assault, but so many people are affected by it,” said Maj. Tara Young, a resilience, risk reduction and suicide prevention coordinator with the Maine Army National Guard. The same fact holds true for military and civilian life.

“It’s not a man’s problem or a woman’s problem. It’s just a problem,” added Lt. Col. Debbie Kelley, a spokeswoman for the 101st Air Refueling Wing, based in Bangor, and a domestic and sexual abuse prevention advocate.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time of increased public awareness about sexual violence and education about prevention. The Muskie School of Public Service estimates roughly 13,000 Maine residents are victims of rape or unwanted sexual activity each year, but in 2012 only 391 rapes or attempted rapes were reported to law enforcement in the state.

In the Maine National Guard, efforts focus heavily on preventing sexual assaults. The Army National Guard has about 2,126 members, and the Air National Guard has about 1,100, and there is not always even one report of a sex assault in a year, Young said. Advocates are more likely to hear from members trying to help someone in their family or an acquaintance, or else want to talk about an experience from their childhood.

The Guard places an expert in victim advocacy at each of its smaller units, and every member every year receives training about available resources and staff, sexual assault and harassment policy and response, and how to be responsible bystanders. What they learn is helpful for anyone, whether they’re civilians or in the military.

“We focus on making sure everybody has the chance to intervene,” Young said. The chances are good that Maine residents, at some point in their lives, will have the chance to stop child abuse, sexual assault or some form of violence. They should know it’s OK to say something and know free services are available to help victims.

Just because victims confide in an advocate, on or off a military complex, doesn’t mean they have to file charges or let others know. Young said the most important thing is for a victim to seek help.

Sometimes, though, victims don’t want to get someone in trouble and so are afraid to report. “They want it to stop. They want to be safe, but they don’t want to upset the apple cart. And that is something we have to deal with,” Young said. She wants people to know that reporting the problem is not causing the problem.

The Guard made an administrative change a few years ago to provide victims more control when reporting an assault. Instead of requiring leadership to know the details of what happened, victims have the option of telling their commanders. The change was a long time coming.

“[Victims] need to have that power back,” Young said.

And every month, certain Maine National Guard members meet as part of the Wellbeing Council to address issues such as sexual assault, suicide awareness, sexual harassment and domestic violence. They discuss how they can improve prevention and response efforts systemwide.

Nationally, the military has been heavily criticized for not doing nearly enough to curb sexual violence. Reform has happened slowly.

Young and Kelley acknowledge the struggle and the positive change. Kelley described a recent training in Washington, D.C., for new Guard leaders. The seminar started with people being told that if they think there’s no problem, they’re part of the problem. No one should forget that sentiment, whether they’re a Guardsman or civilian.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.