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Airman begins healing through support

Ramstein Air Base, Germany -- April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month and the 86 Airlift Wing SAPR office said sexual assault has a significant impact on the military community at large. One Ramstein Airman stepped forward to tell her story. To maintain her privacy we have agreed to refer to her as Airman “Z”.

Independence Day weekend 2013, Osan Air Base, Korea, should have been a great chance for Airman “Z” to learn about the operational Air Force. Her first weekend, at her first duty station, should have been where she experienced the trust and integrity service members aspire to uphold. Instead -- her first weekend, at her first duty station, she was sexually assaulted.

“Z” was assaulted in a beach hut early morning Sunday, July 7, by an Army soldier she recently met. Monday morning, she went to the First Term Airman’s Center.

“I went to FTAC in the morning and you sit through all the briefings and the SAPR (office) comes and briefs you,” she said. “It was a blessing and a curse all at the same time.”

As a new Airman she sat through all of the day’s briefings with the knowledge of her assault weighing her down heavily.

“I made it through Monday of FTAC but after that I knew I needed to do something,” she explained.

Z knew she knew she needed to speak to someone about what happened to her. She immediately went to the chaplain after FTAC.

“I knew that chaplains are 100 percent confidential,” she said.

Neither a chaplain, nor a chaplain’s assistant may divulge any information a service member discusses with them without the member’s written consent.

“(The chaplain) was great,” She said. “He just listened to me. That put into perspective that something had happened to me; that I knew something was wrong.”

After that meeting, “Z” decided to visit the SAPR office who, along with victim advocates, also have confidentiality.

When choosing to report overseas, Department of Defense cardholders over the age of 18 may choose to file a restricted or unrestricted report. During a restricted report, the victim’s command is not notified, and no investigation is initiated. At any time a victim may choose to change the restricted report to unrestricted. When an unrestricted report is filed, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) begins an investigation and the victim may request an expedited transfer or restraining order. An unrestricted report cannot become restricted.

Either way, victims have many resources including: the SAPR office, a victim advocate, medical care, counseling, a Special Victim’s Counsel, and the chaplains.

She decided to file an unrestricted report because right before her assault, she knew her assailant tried to assault another female.

“I wanted to do an unrestricted report,” Airman “Z” said. “I knew I didn’t want it to happen to any other girl. I didn’t want anyone else to go through that and I wanted to make sure that it stopped.”

“Z” said she wishes she’d used a victim advocate, because a victim advocate would have been able to help her with what happened next, the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE).

As a medical Airman, she was familiar with functions of the exam from a clinical standpoint, but the personally intrusive nature of the exam was a different story.

At approximately 3 a.m., Tuesday, July 9, the SAFE began. It lasted six hours.
During the exam, a victim needs to remove their clothing so the medical professional can collect samples of hair, skin cells, and other biological material from the entire body, “Z” said.

The 86th Airlift Wing SAPR office said there is no average amount of time for forensic exams. They can be time intensive because they are always guided by the survivor who may stop and start based on their comfort level and the medical professional administering the exam.

“During the (exam) you don’t want to take off your clothes,” “Z” explained. “A sexual assault is more than just your body being violated, it’s your brain too. It messes with you.”

She said she was thankful for the medical staff.

“The nurse definitely put me at ease,” she said. “She cared about me and my entire well-being.”

“For an unrestricted report your chain of command is notified,” she said. “Thankfully no one said anything, and I had no idea my medical group commander knew until my court date. My leadership, especially my first sergeant, was great, and supportive. I was still able to be an Airman.”

She said she didn’t lose any job responsibilities, and she was nominated and even won an award.

For months after the assault, “Z” didn’t feel like herself. She said she avoided even looking in a mirror because she felt violated. Even though she knew none of this was her fault, false guilt plagued her mind.

Throughout the process, OSI needed her to relive the experience several times in her mind, to make sure all the details were there. A little under a year later, with her special victim’s counsel at her side, “Z” went to court.

“The special victim’s counsel is a great asset for someone to use,” she explained. “He was resourceful, since he was solely focused on sexual assault cases; he knew the rules. He was available all the time, every step of the way.”

Rather than risk a three-day trial, “Z” and her team accepted a 15 month plea from her attacker but, she said, the judge ordered him to 24 months in jail.

Before the end of 15 months, however, her assailant was paroled and dishonorably discharged from service.

“I didn’t do this for the sentence,” she said. “I just wanted it to not happen to anyone else.”

The case was finished but she hadn’t fully healed. “Z” said she still needed to fight against the darkness of depression.

“Mental health saved my life on many occasions,” she said. “I was diagnosed with PTSD and I’ve had to go back to them over the last few years. I even tried to take my own life because of this. Seeking mental health can be the greatest thing because you know you’re not alone.”

The importance of stepping forward wasn’t lost on her. She said because of the experience, she implores people to step forward and seek help.

“It’s a long process,” she said, “but rewarding in the end to see yourself transform into a survivor. Reporting will not ruin your career. The first step is the hardest, but if you can’t do it for yourself, do it for someone else.”