Don Felch is a retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant with three decades of active duty and Air National Guard service as an aircraft maintainer, Professional Military Education instructor, and Senior Enlisted Leader. Before retiring, he was assigned as Commandant of the Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center at McGhee-Tyson Air National Guard Base in Tennessee. You can access his Air Force bio here.
In June of 2011, the Air Force began investigating a series of sexual assaults and other inappropriate conduct by military training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, ultimately involving at least 43 trainees and implicating at least 17 instructors. Outrage over the scandal rocked the Air Force and raised concerns in the United States Congress about adequate oversight and proper training management.
At the time, I was a Chief Master Sergeant serving on active duty as a noncommissioned officer academy commandant. Since training command Airmen committed these crimes, there was added sensitivity and a lot of pressure on Air Force leaders at all levels to “do something.” Lacking an enemy to engage, the military machine applied a long-standing tradition: massive firepower. Specifically, the solution to placating Congressional concern to educate the force on a rapid timeline and under threat of serious adverse actions if the training was not accomplished and documented for 100% of Airmen.
The high-level interest had several unintended consequences. Among them, organizations often conducted training in mass formations. Example? Cram everyone into an auditorium or classroom, make them “sign in” to document attendance, and make them watch films, slide presentations, or listen to speakers who addressed sexual assault, victim and perpetrator profiles, prevention, reporting, etc. As I watched this panic unfold, I began to realize the intent was not to prevent sexual assault at all, but rather to prove we were doing something. By reporting the rate and number of Airmen crammed into classrooms to those in positions of power, we could provide evidence of action—any action—to prevent recurrence of what happened at Lackland.
So we answered the mail. We took action. We made everyone listen as we told them they shouldn’t sexually assault one another. We instructed them to report such behaviors if they witnessed them. In doing so, we also made victims again of many Airmen who were subjected to cruel, mandatory reminders of their own past experiences.
As I sat in the auditorium for the second sexual assault awareness training event in two months (my school fell under two commanders who would not accept one another’s training dates), a graphic movie played on the screen with interviews from multiple victims of sexual assault. It was a well-presented story line intended to generate thought about a serious subject. I sat in the front row, representing leadership while memories of my own experiences as a young teen grew more and more vivid. The victims on the screen were describing, in great detail, how their attackers made them feel. I felt the sweat begin to chill the back of my neck and my stomach knot. If I got up from the front row and walked out, I would signal to all those I was charged to lead that the training wasn’t important to me. I had to sit and set the example.
But it was too much; after a brief, internal struggle, I did leave. Later, the Sexual Assault Awareness Coordinator informed me she had received anonymous complaints that the Chief thought the training wasn’t valuable or that he (I) believed mandatory training didn’t apply to him (me). It was a tough day. I walked around the campus breathing in air and pushing back long-dead memories of a very difficult time in my life. Later I did a little bit of online research through 1in6.org and nomore.org. I discovered that 1 in 2 women and 1 in 6 men experience some form of sexual violence or assault in their lives. I then realized the auditorium likely contained many more people who felt the same way I did. In fact, statistically, in the room of 80 Airmen, between 30 and 40 likely had some kind of experience that could have been brought to the surface by graphic reminders contained in this “training.”
Mass, mandatory training events are not action. They do not reduce instances of sexual assault (or DWI, motorcycling without helmets, suicides or shoplifting, for that matter). Mandatory training events serve to prove a documented action took place so leaders can pretend they have taken action to control a situation. Mandatory training events treat everyone as (at least) ignorant and in the worst cases, as a perpetrator or victim. Leaders assume by compelling attendance everyone needs to learn what the “instructor” has to teach. They also assume by attending, everyone has somehow been inoculated against bad behavior; it’s just like getting an immunization shot. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mandatory training events on sensitive subjects serve to bring unpleasant and sometimes horrific events to the surface for those who have been victims. Impersonal discussion in an auditorium or classroom environment “traps” attendees. In some cases they literally cannot depart without disrupting or disturbing the event. Even if they can subtly step out, Airmen run the risk of being later challenged or disciplined for missing mandatory training. Where no such threats exist, there remains stigma attached to skipping training everyone is “supposed to” attend. Finally, these events may also stir prurient interest or excitement in the minds of perpetrators as they are allowed to listen to graphic discussion of their crimes. Mass briefings, in short, are simply not real leadership.
Real leadership is about engaging Airmen. It is about getting to know who they are, what their dreams and ambitions are, what their fears and developmental opportunities may be. Leadership with meaningful engagement and genuine interest serves to detect and prevent horrific atrocities such as sexual assault within the ranks. Asking critical questions, closely observing individual interaction, and spending one-on-one time with our direct reports helps to detect and prevent criminal behavior. Providing adequate numbers of leaders (ratio of supervisors to direct reports) helps mitigate bad behavior.
The events leading up to 2011’s investigations and subsequent prosecutions were tragic. They underscore a dark time in our Air Force when we lost control of a group of noncommissioned officers who were charged with protecting our most valuable asset: our Airmen. More tragically, we followed these events with damaging and pointless session after session of mandatory sexual assault awareness training for people who needed no more awareness. We told ourselves we were taking action to prevent recurrence, but we further damaged our Airmen. When will we realize jamming people into an auditorium does not constitute training or leadership? When will we LEAD through our challenges rather than answer the mail with sign-in sheets? When will we stop treating everyone as though they have identical developmental needs?
When these things happen, we will have leadership.
Don welcomes reactions to this piece and will be watching the comments. You can also drop him a line if desired at firstname.lastname@example.org.