TUCSON, Ariz. -- April has been federally designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, SAAM. Each April, government and civilian agencies nationwide honor SAAM by providing educational opportunities and special events to increase the awareness and prevention of sexual violence.
Sexual violence is not an easy topic to discuss, especially for survivors who have lived the trauma that will haunt them throughout their life. To some, SAAM dredges up the painful memories of their past forcing them to relive their nightmare. For others, however, SAAM gives survivors the strength to share their stories with the community offering validation, support and the opportunity for healing.
1st Lt. Melissa Gonzalez, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, SARC, here at the wing said, "Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a way for survivors to stand-up and fight back, sharing their stories with others to educate and prevent these types of crimes from happening again."
"It's proof that the community cares," said Tech. Sgt. Mitzi Eggers, a victim advocate here at the 162nd Wing. "We want survivors to know that this is not something that will be pushed under the rug."
A sexual assault survivor, who will remain anonymous, came forward to share her story and express her feelings about SAAM.
"Sexual assault awareness validates what assault is. It's very comforting to know that others see it the same way instead of blaming the victim, which is what has happened for decades," she said.
This year's SAAM theme is "Live Our Values: Step Up to Stop Sexual Assault."
Kevin J. Crowley, deputy director of manpower and personnel at the National Guard Bureau said, "Without question, we must live our values each day - year round. Step up by intervening when appropriate. Report these crimes and support our National Guard victims/survivors."
The wing Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, SAPR, team will share information on SAAM activities and events throughout the month, and will commemorate Denim Day April 18, 2014 by wearing jeans and teal shirts. Take time out of your day to ask one of the team members about the significance of Denim Day in the fight against sexual violence.
"The 162nd has a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault," said Col. Phil Purcell, commander of the 162nd Wing. "Sexual assault has a devastating impact on morale and readiness. We will continue to fight it through education, training and the fostering of a culture of respect among our Airmen," he said.
Since the establishment of the Department of Defense sexual assault policy in 2005, sexual assault reporting statistics have been inconsistent. Although it will never be known how many sexual assaults there actually are each year, victims are more likely to come forward because of the strict policies and education that has led to a cultural revolution, said Eggers.
"We are gradually changing the culture that creates unsafe environments - it just takes time," said Eggers. "There has been great improvement throughout the DOD in the last 10 years, but it's not improved enough until there are zero sexual assaults," she said.
Several years ago restricted reporting processes relaxed allowing victims to seek help from someone they feel comfortable with, someone other than a SARC, victim advocate or medical personnel, while keeping their report confidential.
Awareness and education on what sexual assault is and how to report it improves the chance of victims coming forward and seeking help, said Gonzalez.
"If you were victimized, seek help," urges the survivor. "Initially you're scared, the world is spinning, you don't know what's going on, you're in complete shock but at some point you're going to get angry," she said.
Victims who seek help open a door for themselves and their future.
"As a survivor, I know that the trauma stays with you for years, in very subtle ways, impacting your life and your relationships both physically and emotionally," said the survivor. "You're not going to just magically heal," she said.
Both Gonzalez and Eggers urge victims to at least speak with a SAPR team member. Restricted reporting is anonymous and allows victims to receive medical and emotional help immediately. It also allows a victim to pursue an investigation for up to one year after the incident.
"It's a long, hard, journey," said the survivor. "It changes you and you will never be the same, but you can move on and you can heal," she said.
The survivor expressed that she is glad she came forward, even at a time when there were no sexual assault policies in place like there are now, because it emboldened numerous other women to also come forward with complaints against the same attacker.
"Have the courage to step up and ask for help," said Eggers. "Use the resources that are available to you," she said. "You don't have to do this alone."
As one of the most experienced victim advocates at the wing, Eggers has worked with countless victims and knows well how it can impact lives. When educating others, she ensures her information "hits home," she said. "It's easy to pretend it doesn't happen unless it happens to you personally, but it's real, it happens," said Eggers.
"It's important for people to know that it can happen to anyone," said Gonzalez. "Male, female, married or single; it can happen to a 9-year-old or a 90-year-old," she said. "Sexual assault has no bias."
According to statistics from the DOD SAPR website and local SAPR experts:
1 in 4 women will be assaulted during her career.
1 in 33 men will be assault during his lifetime.
2,949 reports of sexual assault against service members were reported during fiscal year 2012.
88 percent of these victims were female.
12 percent of these victims were male.
18 percent were under the age of 19.
"Educate family and friends," said Eggers. "Be an active bystander. If you see something that is happening that could potentially be harmful, step in and speak up," she said.
"We all have a role in its prevention and taking care of sexual assault victims," said Purcell. "Together we can help prevent sexual assault and mitigate the damage it causes. If you become a victim contact the SARC or one of our victim advocates. If you witness an assault about to take place, intervene. If you know someone who has been assaulted, show them where they can get help," he said.
Access to around-the-clock sexual assault assistance and health care is a wing priority, said Purcell.
"We do our best to make sure everyone is familiar with sexual assault reporting procedures, as well as having the necessary resources available to help victims, whether for themselves or someone they know," said Maj. Stephen Moorhead, SARC for the wing.
The following resources are available to help victims:
162nd Wing 24/7 SARC Hotline - 520-305-0299
RAINN - 1-800-656-HOPE
Safe Helpline - 1-877-995-5247
National Domestic Violence Helpline - 1-800-799-SAFE