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Make it personal

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Earl Ardales
  • 386th Air Expeditionary Wing
The wing just capped off Sexual Assault Awareness Month with a very inspiring event - - "Take Back the Night Walk on The Rock." While everyone had their own personal motivation to participate, it was very moving to see people of every rank, sex, color, religion, and race come together to support this noteworthy cause. It wasn't Lt. Col. Ardales who walked that night, it was just Earl Ardales.

Our Air Force has recently shone a very bright light on the subject of sexual assault. The intense focus of our leaders in Congress on this subject have brought so much pressure upon the Defense Department that every service secretary and chief has to address it in their testimony at nearly every hearing they attend. We all know, however, this topic is nothing new.

We were already held to "zero tolerance" policies when it comes to sexual assault prior to Congress ever showing interest in the subject. However, whether to pacify the critics or for some other reason, the services are adapting policy to ensure we as service members do not tolerate sexual assault. I find myself asking the question, "How less tolerant can we be if we are already zero tolerant?" The answer to that question cannot be found in our regulations or in our commanders who enforce them. For the United States Air Force, the question can only be answered by each individual Airman.

Gen. Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower once said, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." From a leadership perspective, as in any large organization, we have to make a direct link from each Airman's action to the objective of the unit. It is expected that Airmen will do what they are ordered to do or suffer the consequences. For the sake of sexual assault PREVENTION, however, it is not enough to rely on how many people our commanders punish for not following orders as a measure of effectiveness. Each and every Airman has to consider "sexual assault" so heinous as to ban it from our lexicon. If we need a term of reference, then let us use "mutual respect."

So where does this leave us? How do we get there from here? At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, I say we have to make it personal. Leaders at every level have to reach down to every Airman and look them in the eye at every opportunity to ensure we all embrace a culture of mutual respect, not just sexual assault awareness.

Since we are in the area of responsibility, we cannot fully participate in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response stand-down with the rest of the Air Force. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as we cannot regulate our way out of this issue, we cannot rely on a program involving videos of people we do not know and a script of words that are not our own to reach out and educate the masses.

When I was a squadron Operations Officer, I had the opportunity to lead several squadron discussions during command-directed stand-downs for SAPR, Comprehensive Airman Fitness, and the like. Instead of gathering the masses in an auditorium to have them all sit facing the same direction and listen to me read off of the recommended discussion topics, I had them turn their chairs inwards so that we formed a large circle with everyone facing each other. I took off my uniform blouse as a physical reminder to everyone that they were no longer talking to their Lt. Col....they were talking to Earl -- the same person they saw every day walking through their work centers and who treated them the same way no matter what I was wearing...ABU, blues, flight suit, or jeans and a t-shirt. No matter what day it was or what I was wearing, even though it was expected, it really didn't matter to me that they stood up when I talked to them, or that they addressed me as "sir," or even if they missed a salute outside. I expected nothing more than what any human being expected...common courtesy.

We talked about what they wanted to talk about. You would be correct in thinking that you could hear a pin drop for those first few minutes. But when I, Earl, started off talking about what I was going through at home, or what deployments have done to my family, or what action I took or didn't take at the bar last weekend when I saw something I was uncomfortable with, it was amazing to hear what my brothers and sisters in arms said in exchange. I would be naïve to think that this gesture alone fixed our issues with mutual respect, but I know it helped to start the conversation.

People are right to think we have to change our culture if we want to see the change we say we want. However, the word "culture" is so abstract and intangible. What do you do with "culture?" We, as Airmen past and present, own our culture. It is only we, as current Airmen, who can change our culture. We have to make it personal.