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NEWS | Feb. 13, 2013

We're paying a strategic price for sexual harassment

By Maj. Reid Wynans 628th Air Base Wing Command Post commander

Super Bowl XLVII ... wow, what a game! Without question, both teams relied on an outstanding Harbaugh coach (choose your favorite) and the superb skills of its players, especially from superstars Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco and Colin Kapernick.

At that level of competition, every inch of competitive advantage makes a difference and, with so much prestige (not to mention money) on the line, those organizations leverage every conceivable advantage to ensure victory in their quest for the much-revered Lombardi Trophy. Nothing is taken for granted.

Now, imagine that - despite the promise of a glory-bound Super Bowl victory - the Baltimore Ravens organization had illogically regarded certain players and staff with disdain, disrespect, or just general ambivalence despite a chorus of critical feedback erupting from fans, press, the players themselves and even Congress! Over time, morale would sag, the best players would leave for better organizations, and the team would certainly underperform itself into defeat-riddled irrelevance with a Super Bowl victory existing as mere delusion.

Unfortunately, we don't get to just imagine Baltimore's fictional problems. We, in the Air Force, are mired in the sore reality of our own illogical mess. Our mess manifests itself as sexual harassment and, if not eliminated, will spawn profound strategic consequences for our ability to "answer the call" of our nation's defense. In America, a woman stands a one-in-six chance of getting sexually harassed (or worse) in her lifetime. However, according to a New York Times article, if she takes the oath to defend her country, her chance of getting sexually harassed or assaulted doubles to one-in-three.


Can you hear the chorus of critique and critical feedback against sexual assault and harassment from our teammates, public, and our government? You should, it's getting louder by the day, and it's coming from within and without.

Last month, our Chief of Staff, Gen Mark Welsh III, and Gen Edward Rice, Jr, Air Education and Training Command commander spent the day testifying in front of the House Arms Services Committee. Their testimony did not cover the topics that one would expect: the war in Southwest Asia, aircraft procurement challenges, the future of space operations, etc.

Instead, the testimony focused on the issue we are talking about now. Both four-star generals sat before a panel of congressmen who were themselves petitioned to intervene by concerned citizens. At the public hearing, the generals fielded questions regarding the Air Force's response to a growing problem within our ranks.

We publicly decry the disrespect of women but, around the water cooler, we privately employ blinding self-denial and assure ourselves that these episodes occur elsewhere - that they are isolated and certainly do not occur in our section, squadron or base.

We cite the Joint Base San Antonio - Lackland, Texas basic military training tragedy as the unfortunate result of a few influential "bad apples." By subscribing to this myopic understanding of these situations, we fail to realize that each "isolated" incident, when viewed holistically, joins thousands of other related incidents to paint a very clear and ugly picture of sexual misconduct on the Air Force's cultural canvas.

So why is this a strategic issue? It is strategic because our nation's defense rests on a quality-based force structure. Every American has the choice to serve in our military. Without the stick of obligatory conscription, each military branch attract the nation's finest high school and college graduates. Our nation demands our best. Through a winning combination of high standards, innovative training, and demographic diversity, the Air Force cultivates a formidable fighting force. Women, who compromise more than 62,000 members of this force, represent an invaluable fiber of that diversity-rooted strength. However, at just 19 percent of the Air Force, women are still underrepresented in our organization, which means that, despite being the best Air Force ever, we still operate short of our full potential. Sexual harassment destroys our capability for improvement, which stagnates our service's necessary continual development and, thus, our strategic effectiveness around the globe.

Just as with the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens, the Air Force must leverage every conceivable resource to its advantage in order to dominate its adversaries now and in the future. Recruiting and retaining the highest quality team members lays the foundation for this success. Sexually permissive cultural norms, attitudes, or artifacts - no matter how nostalgic they seem - endanger this strategic foundation and we must eliminate them whenever and wherever we experience them. Our nation's defense depends on it.