Garner to head to the Pentagon for Awards Ceremony

Captain Brittaney Garner has a tough job. The Air Force Officer at Eglin Air Force Base is the Deputy Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) on base. It’s a special duty assignment that lasts two years – and focuses on reducing the number of sexual assaults through education and responding to them. 

She’s done a great job – she’ll head to the Pentagon on May 11th to receive accolades as the SARC of the Year. During her time at Eglin, she’s almost doubled the personnel available to deal with traumatic situations and has conducted inaugural training for new SARCs in Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia. 

The RAND Corporation, a research firm, says 6.2% of women and .7% of men in the military have experienced sexual assault in the last year. According to their data – approximately 13,000 women and 7,500 men said they experienced a form of sexual assault (defined here) either while in the service or before joining up. 

 

a woman in fatigues smiling for a portrait.
Captain Brittaney Garner is the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator of the Year. She uses her background as an Information Operations Officer to fight back against sexual assault in the military.

The military noted a one percent increase in sexual assaults reported in 2022 – 8,942 reports. Of those reports – 7,378 were alleged to have occurred while the servicemember was in the military. 

Garner says the most challenging obstacle to overcome for people who’ve experienced sexual assault is the mental block that stays behind long after physical trauma has healed. It’s insidious. “I’ve heard clients tell me… ‘you know, that abuse was rough, but my mental abuse is the one that’s really hurting me. And this was 15 years ago that [the crime] happened. Sexual assault messes with a person mentally, spiritually, and physically. And not all planes [of damage] get healed or operate on the same [schedule] every time. You may feel physically [better] but your brain has not caught up to what has happened. The literal neuroscience of it, your brain has not dealt with the trauma, and it causes you to do things if you were healthier in your brain, you wouldn’t normally do.”

The Rand report found that best practices for the military to implement as a way to reduce sexual violence include:

  • Limiting alcohol intoxication.
  • Actively combatting the belief that certain circumstances justify rape and victim-blaming.
  • Balancing the workplace in terms of gender.
  • Reducing sexual harassment and changing military members’ minds about what sexual assault is. 

The report also noted that the Air Force has a lower rate of sexual assaults than other branches of the military. 

“I see a lot of younger people who come into the military; typically the younger airmen, between 18-24, are the people who report the most. The saddest thing I see is that when a military member comes to my office and reports, they usually have had a negative traumatic sexual experience before joining the military.”

 For Garner – the mission is essential to readiness and retention. Without strong, supported personnel, the force is left weaker. “It’s nefarious, it’s very ugly. Sometimes, it’s a hidden, hidden wound. But the implications can last for a lifetime. Especially when they happen in childhood. If you don’t want to heal – to move on from it – it will take over your entire life at the most inopportune time. And what’s worse yet is that if you become a parent or co-worker, you often pass down some of the negative coping skills that you learned or haven’t learned to the people you are responsible for.”

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“I’ve heard clients tell me… ‘you know, that abuse was rough, but my mental abuse is the one that’s really hurting me. And this was 15 years ago that [the crime] happened. Sexual assault messes with a person mentally, spiritually, and physically. And not all planes [of damage] get healed or operate on the same [schedule] every time. You may feel physically [better] but your brain has not caught up to what has happened. The literal neuroscience of it, your brain has not dealt with the trauma, and it causes you to do things if you were healthier in your brain, you wouldn’t normally do.”
a woman in fatigues smiling for a portrait.
Brittaney Garner
Sexual Assault Response Coordinator

Changing Behavior and Beliefs About Sexual Assault in the Military

A SARC is a temporary assignment – which means Garner’s Air Force Speciality Code can inform what she does as a SARC regularly. It so happens that she is an Information Operations Officer, or 14F, by training. 14Fs have backgrounds in social sciences like psychology, sociology, marketing, public relations, or other similar fields. In short – they understand how minds work and how people relate to others. Her brain was tailor-made for a job like this. In fact – it’s been her goal to use her background to wage war on the roots of sexual assaults and attempt to neutralize thinking that leads to assaults themselves, victim blaming, and permission structures that allow it to keep happening in the military. 

 

Data back up Garner’s observation – Rand notes that a person is more likely to be victimized a second time in the military if assaulted before joining. 

So, she and the Eglin team of SARCs focus their energies when they are not responding to active cases of sexual assault by empowering airmen to reduce their risk and report crimes that they do fall victim to. “The miltary has a phrase, ‘be a good wingman,’ I’m sure you’ve heard of it. And it’s cliché, but it’s so true,” Garner noted, “That is what I need the public to be aware of, ‘you need to pay more attention to what’s going on – because [sexual assault] is going on.’ Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not going on.”

Creating a Cadre of Crack Sexual Assault Response Coordinators

SARC Officers turn over their duties every two years, and officers like Garner return to their regular billets. With that kind of turnover in a volunteer position – it can be hard to hit the ground running for the next person to fill the position. The essential skill to her success as a SARC – Communicating well with everyone she interacts with. “[SARCs] have to be able to communicate with a brand-new airman and then they have to be able to communicate with the most senior person and everyone in between,” Garner says. Successful SARCs can tailor their message to get the correct information to the right people at the right time. New airmen need to know what warning signs they need to look out for so they know if they are in a risky situation. Commanders need to know what programs and policies are most effective at reducing sexual violence on and off base for military members.

But SARCs can’t just make a PowerPoint and be done with it – the communication has to impact everyone and leave them with a sense of purpose regarding reducing and reporting sexual assault on the base. They have to empower victims, propel them to diligence in their surroundings and give actionable insights to the people who can make changes – whether they are the commander or an airman going out with a group of friends on Friday.

What Has The Military Done to Prevent Sexual Assault and Respond to Cases?

According to an annual report about sexual assault prevention and response in the military – the Department of Defense has executed several actions to reduce and respond to sexual assault in the military. So far, the DoD says they have:

  • Established a professional career billet for military justice personnel handling sexual assault crimes. 
  • Developed the SARC program.
  • Allowed sexual assault survivors to take time off that doesn’t count against their leave to deal with the assault and get linked up with resources they need to recover.
  • Made sexual harassment victims eligible for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response services. 

In addition, the military has stood up a special trial council for each branch of the armed services, begun a process to make positions like SARCs permanent one, and moved SARCs and victim advocates out of the command structure so that they don’t have to worry about retaliation themselves, looked at co-locating special victim services and make the SARC position a full-time gig, so that the officer in the position can focus wholeheartedly on reducing sexual assault and preventing it. 

Additionally, in 2023, Congress set aside $479 million to hire people to prevent sexual assault in the military.  

Like most crimes – sexual assault affects the most vulnerable. In the case of the military, the Rand Corporation said these factors had the highest correlation with sexual assault crimes. 

  • Being a woman
  • Being in a sexual minority
  • A previous victim of sexual assault
  • Enlisted
  • Intoxicated at the time of the incident
  • In basic training
  • In an office or job setting where the workforce is primarily male
  • Sexual harassment incidents have taken place previously

If you are looking for sexual assault resources – the best place for military personnel to get started is SAPR.mil

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