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How to talk to survivors

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- If you live or work on Schriever Air Force Base, the big green dot on the marquee as you enter the gate is hard to miss. It states, "It starts with you." You may have also seen the fluorescent green dot on the Spirit Rock outside the Fitness Center. Both green dots represent a pro-active program the Air Force is rolling out to deter apathy towards violence, teach bystanders to intervene in potential assault situations and prevent violent situations. However, we know we won't always be successful, and we cannot change those assaults that have already occurred. So how can we help those survivors who have been assaulted?

As the Green Dot program is implemented, survivors of sexual assault and violence, male or female, may feel they can share their experiences, some for the very first time. It is likely you know or have known someone who has been sexually assaulted or raped. Survivors often deal with a multitude of mental health issues including; depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders due to the trauma they experienced. The wrong response to a victim's story can actually cause more long-lasting negative effects and trauma to the victim. So what do you say if someone says: "I think I was raped?"

Believe. "I believe you." According to Jon Krakauer's book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, "It's been estimated that approximately 85 percent of all rapes are in fact committed by assailants who are acquainted in some way to their victims." These assaults often happen in places where people feel safe: a home, a friend's home or a family member's house. The biggest thing survivors and victims lose when they are assaulted is trust. Reassure them you are not there to judge and you will always respect their privacy, and keep that promise.

Understand vulnerability. "It's not your fault." If a survivor opens up to you, empathize with them. It is unimaginable the pain survivors go through while recounting details of an assault. Survivors are often ashamed and blame themselves for putting themselves in the situation that led to the assault. Show empathy to victims by acknowledging the distress and pain they are enduring.

Offer help. "I'm here to listen." According to the 2012 Rand Workplace Survey, "Over 50 percent of Air Force survivors stated the first person they told was an AF peer or friend." Offer to connect the victim with additional support like the chaplains or the Sexual Assault and Prevention Response office. Confidentiality of the victim is the primary goal. The SAPR will work with victims to understand what options are available: reporting (restricted or non-restricted), legal aid, or trauma and recovery and support groups. They can help connect the survivor with additional support while maintaining confidentiality. The Schriever Sexual Assault Response Coordinator hotline on is available 365 days, 24/7 at (719) 567-SARC (7272).

Respect Boundaries. "You can trust me." It takes a lot of courage to open up to others. Victims may not want to pursue therapy or legal pathways right away. Give them the continuing support they need and be ready to help them seek the support when they are ready.

By listening, supporting and respecting the privacy of survivors of sexual assault, we are building a community of protection and trust. We have a responsibility to our community--whether on base or off--to create a culture that gives each individual dignity and respect. It is critical to our mission as Airmen and dependents to build a safe, resilient society, where everyone can feel nurtured, supported and protected, and to spread those ideals in each new duty station or neighborhood. We each can't do everything, but if we all have the courage to do something, we can affect real change in our community.
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