Help, recovery and healing for sexual assault

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Magen M. Reeves
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

Some of our Airmen just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of our Airmen were maliciously targeted. And some of our Airmen simply can’t remember. These individuals, as well as many others, are on a tragic and confusing path, but help is available.

Michelle Johnston, 341st Missile Wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, is the wing’s representative available to active duty personnel, dependents and civilians to help assist those who feel they may have been a victim of sexual assault.

Every installation has a central resource center for those looking for help, seeking answers or simply wanting to have an authentic conversation with someone outside of their circle of friends and family.

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office in building 770 is where Malmstrom’s is located.

Johnston and her support team of victim advocates and representatives of related helping agencies are committed to filling the difficult role of assisting people dealing with these circumstances.

Other agencies include…

“Being able to work with the other agencies allows for collaboration,” said Johnston. “The SAPR office, equal opportunity, mental health, family advocacy and the chapel can offer a plug-in for victim resource programs.”

Johnston also said that victims can sometimes benefit from having multiple perspectives and different response methods to really help find what treatment or outlet best works for them.

Johnston has served in similar roles for the last several years and is considered a subject matter expert in cases of sexual assault recovery.

“The demographic that we usually see sexual assault cases is Airmen 18 to 24 years old,” Johnston said.

However, she also said that there are cases outside of that demographic, including men and women of all ages. She also sees friends, family and supervisors expressing concern by coming forward on behalf of an individual who needs help.

“Victims’ supervisors and friends talk to us all the time about getting counseling for someone else,” Johnston said. “Getting someone the help that they need is really what’s important.”

When working her program, Johnston said she prefers to focus on providing an opportunity for outreach.

“I would like to do outreach at least once a week to individual shops and units,” Johnston said when asked about changes she wants to make to her program. “I’d spend an hour or so hanging out with Airmen, not really as the SARC, but as just a normal person. I think getting to know people (consistently) can help break down defensiveness (barriers).”

SAPR cases reported are unrestricted and restricted

Unrestricted reporting is an official complaint where the Air Force Office of Special Investigations unit launches an investigation and the individual’s chain of command is notified on a need to know basis; all handled with confidentiality.

Restricted reporting is also confidential and is handled by the SARC and various helping agencies including the chapel and mental health. This option does not launch an investigation or chain of command involvement.

“Restricted reporting gives people time to consider all their options and get the help they need,” said Johnston. “SAPR can take them to medical and request a rape kit that can be put on file in case they want OSI to have an investigation at a later time. We can also get them counseling from a downtown center if they aren’t comfortable going to the mental health clinic on base for treatment.”

Although the SARC primarily serves uniformed members and dependents, civilians can request assistance and the SAPR office will help them find a local lawyer or counseling program.

Legally, sexual assault is contact of a sexual nature that can be penetrative or non-penetrative. Some people tend to dismiss the adverse effects of non-penetrative actions, however, a non-penetrative action can still invoke a traumatic experience in the victim.

“I would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t been groped in their entire life,” said Johnston. “That is considered a form of sexual assault.”

There is also the “gray area” or voyeurism, which includes videotaping sexual acts without the consent of those involved or indecently exposing oneself to unwilling individuals.

“Even though there is no contact, what that person is going through is severe,” said Johnston. “Sometimes a victim is so upset that they are often even embarrassed and don’t really feel as though a crime has actually been committed against them. The shock and also the negative stigma can be very upsetting.”

Johnston continued to say that even though a legal case may not go forward, a victim will still receive as much support and as many resources as they need.

“What has happened to the victim is definitely not okay,” said Johnston. “Even if a victim is genuinely not sure if they were assaulted they can still be dealing with symptoms.”

What to look for…

Symptoms to look out for include symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing anxiety and mood swings.

“Having symptoms maybe one day on a bad day doesn’t mean someone is in trouble, but if they didn’t have any of these symptoms before and now suddenly they do consistently, that could be an indicator,” she said.

Johnston said symptoms may also include being consistently late for work, making excuses and having low morale.

She also sees cases of Airmen exhibiting unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their pain.

“The one that I see the most from victims is isolation,” said Johnston. “They stop hanging out and talking to friends, stop doing physical training and can get stuck (focusing on the trauma of the event; reliving it and struggling internally).”

Although sexual assault response is Johnston’s primarily role, she says she would like to focus more of her attention on preventative programs.

“We are looking at adopting other programs from other agencies or organizations that are proving to be working,” Johnston said. “I really think what we need is to encourage a significant paradigm shift.”

Johnston continued to say that she thinks improving and modernizing how the education aspect of the program is executed could be more effective. She thinks the messaging could be more streamlined and marketed to make a bigger impact.

“Anybody, anytime can ask us questions,” said Johnston. “Even if you’re just curious about what sexual assault is. My main goal is to provide the help someone may really need to be ok. We will not turn you away.”

The SARC / SAPR office is located in building 770 and Malmstrom’s hotline is 406-781-6005.