First sergeants ready to assist sexual assault victims

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ashley J. Thum
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Although Airmen often seek medical and legal assistance for sexual assault, first sergeants can be an additional resource to navigate the path to a resolution.

The unique role of a first sergeant allows them to be involved in a sexual assault victim's recovery process in a way other members of an Airman's chain of command may not be able to.

Master Sgt. Jacqueline Pennington, 28th Medical Group first sergeant, said first sergeants are specifically concerned with the welfare of the servicemembers in their unit, in addition to their many administrative duties.

"Our goal as a first sergeant is to establish a rapport and trust within the unit to where our members will feel comfortable coming to us in addition to the relationship they have with their supervision," Pennington said. "Typically, a first sergeant is going to have many years of Air Force experience, and a network of helping agencies who are standing by, ready to assist."

Master Sgt. Nathan Bowers, 28th Bomb Wing Staff first sergeant, said when it comes to sexual assault, pointing victims in the right direction for assistance is the first order of business.

"I do that by getting them to the right base agencies so they can receive the expert help they need," Bowers explained. "I need to continually follow up on my Airman's well being to reinforce that we care and are here to help."

Pennington said she was able to help an Airman who had filed a restricted report about a sexual assault and was scheduled to work in the same area as the alleged offender due to duty changes and squadron moves. Pennington suggested the Airman contact the sexual assault response coordinator and their victim advocate, and afterward the Airman revealed the alleged offender's identity to her.

"From there, I assisted the member during the investigative process, and ensured they had helping agencies at their fingertips," Pennington said. "I was there if they wanted to talk or cry, or were frustrated or confused about the process. Once the case closed out and justice was served, I worked with the SARC to complete the necessary documentation to assist the member with a PCS (permanent change of station) so they could have a fresh start."

Pennington added the process of making a sexual assault report is particularly taxing on the victim since they have to relive their experience multiple times, making compassionate assistance a welcome resource.

Sexual assault can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but Pennington said doing so can help clear up misconceptions on the subject. She emphasized maintaining an open dialogue goes a long way toward alleviating the anxiety someone might feel about coming forward with an issue.

"First sergeants need to ensure all Air Force members are educated that sexual assault is not tolerated," Pennington said. "An example of this would be to speak openly to them about the types of sexual assault that have been seen on different bases and to discuss real-world events or situations. By doing this we are able to educate members on situations they might have thought were not sexual assault, or maybe even touch on a situation they have seen or experienced that they may have been afraid to talk about."

Bowers explained the role of a first sergeant is similar to that of a supervisor or commander in that everyone has the responsibility to help create a healthy work atmosphere.

"We all have to foster a community of respect, live up to our core values, treat others with dignity, and build an environment of trust to ensure the well being of the force," Bowers said.

Pennington added sexual assault is an unfortunate occurrence, but one that can be combated with education.

"No one likes to hear such things can or do happen in our military, or even want to believe a member would harm another member, but unfortunately it does happen," Pennington noted. "The more we educate our Airmen on situational awareness, the better we set them up to learn through others' past experiences."

Bowers said Airmen should always remember they have a support system in their first sergeant, commander and supervisor, adding first sergeants are always ready to assist in any area.

"The first sergeant is often viewed as the first line of advocacy when things are not going as one would hope in their life," Bowers said. "I believe that the desire to help others is why most pursue the diamond."

To report sexual assault, call the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office at (605) 385-5233 or the 24/7 reporting line at (605) 385-SARC (7272).