Guard stepping up sexual assault fight

Springfield base to stand down for prevention training this month.

This fiscal year, which doesn’t end for another two months, the Ohio National Guard has had 13 reports of sexual assault — triple the amount reported during all of 2012, according to data requested by the Springfield News-Sun.

The numbers suggest that the Guard, which has more than 1,000 full and part-time airmen and soldiers in Springfield, isn’t immune to the rise in sexual assaults that has plagued active-duty forces.

The increase in reported sexual assaults in the U.S. military has been called an epidemic, with 3,374 reported assaults involving service members during fiscal year 2012 — a six percent rise from the year before.

However, those statistics don’t include the 201 sexual assaults reported in 2012 across the National Guard, whose ranks are filled with men and women who serve primarily under the authority of a state governor and aren’t considered active-duty military.

The Guard’s response to the problem is no different.

“We have to trust each other to get the mission done,” said Col. Gregory Schnulo, commander of the Springfield Air National Guard Base’s 178th Fighter Wing. “A sexual assault breaks that trust. There’s no room for it. There’s no tolerance.”

Like every unit in the nation, the local wing is making it known there’s no mission more critical right now than preventing sexual assault.

On July 26, all missions at the Springfield base will stand down for three hours, Schnulo said, in order for about 1,000 full-time airmen and traditional guardsmen from all four local Air Guard units to undergo sexual assault prevention training.

It’s possible, he said, that even the personnel in charge of the base’s 24-7 Predator flying mission will take a rare break from overseas combat operations for the session.

“This is our priority right now,” Schnulo said. “We’re going to shut everything down to talk about sexual assaults.”

Every guardsmen also is required to attend an interactive training course annually in sexual assault prevention and response led by the base’s sexual assault response coordinator, or SARC, and its five victim advocates. The courses stress that it’s OK to come forward to report a sexual assault.

“We’re talking about stuff in training we wouldn’t have talked about 30 years ago,” Schnulo said. “It’s not just talking to you, it’s talking with you.”

Between the Air National Guard and Army National Guard, Ohio has 136 victim advocates available for its Guard personnel to seek out. A class in September will train an additional 30 to 40 victim advocates for Ohio units, according to Capt. Matthew Martling, sexual assault response coordinator for the Ohio Guard.

Those victim advocates are described as the front line in combating sexual assaults. They’re in place to talk and to get victims the help they need.

“We’re encouraging people to come forward and get help,” said Master Sgt. Tabatha King, who volunteered in 2008 to become a victim advocate at the 178th.

As Schnulo explained, a victim advocate has to possess one crucial trait: “It’s got to be someone people can trust.”

It’s possible the SARCs and victim advocates already are having an effect.

Schnulo and Martling believe the increase in reported sexual assaults doesn’t indicate a rise in actual assaults. Rather, they say, personnel feel safer reporting the crimes.

“People are starting to trust the system,” Schnulo said.

But, Schnulo also isn’t dismissing the rise.

“The numbers don’t lie,” he said. “There’s something going on.”

The Pentagon has estimated that only about 11 percent of sexual assaults annually are reported to authorities — about the same level of under-reporting in civilian society.

Who can do what, though, about prosecuting sex crimes is where the Guard largely differs from the active-duty force.

Because the majority of guardsmen are under the authority of their governor, they have to rely on the civilian justice system. In the Guard, commanders like Schnulo don’t have the same authority as their active-duty counterparts.

“If something happens at Wright-Patterson,” he said, “security forces can roll in and arrest someone. We have no arresting authority.”

However, if civilian authorities find no wrongdoing, Guard units still can call on the service of National Guard Bureau investigators. Those internal findings could result in a reduction in rank or even discharge, Schnulo said.

In her time as a victim advocate at the local base, King has helped a couple of fellow guardsmen get help for assaults that took place in a civilian capacity.

“We have to have a working relationship with so many entities,” she said.

But, the Guard also is unique for how long its members serve together, which only re-emphasizes the need to tackle the problem.

“We’re together for 20 years,” Schnulo said, “for the good and the bad.”

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