Instructor-pilot victim-advocates help sexual assault survivors stay in the cockpit

  • Published
  • By Phill Stuart
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Until recently there was one major hurdle hundreds of Airmen at Vance Air Force Base face when reporting sexual assault -- fear of losing their flying status.

With some help from the 71st Operations Group, the Vance Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Stephanie Armel, removed that hurdle by training instructor pilots as Volunteer Victim Advocates for the first time in September 2020. 

Armel said that having instructors as victim advocates gives student pilots someone they can go to who understands their specific needs. A recent sexual assault survivor, a student pilot who chose to remain anonymous, agreed.

“I cannot overstate how much having an IP VA has helped me,” the survivor said. “Before reporting, I was unsure if I would make it through the program. The support I get from my VA has allowed me to refocus on flying and look forward to coming to work.”

However, the survivor almost didn’t get that support.

“At the time of my assault, there were not any IP Victim Advocates in my squadron,” the survivor said. “The reason I eventually decided to report was because I was put in contact with one in my new squadron.”

The survivor was initially worried that reporting their assault would come at the cost of their flying career, however the victim advocates they worked with were able to reassure them.

“Knowing that I wouldn’t be penalized for speaking up encouraged me that reporting was a route I could take,” they said.

1st Lt. Ken Gill, an instructor pilot and victim advocate with the 33rd Flying Training Squadron, said he understands that for many student pilots, even those traumatized by a sexual assault, flying comes first.

“Whether that person wants to fly or not, that should be up to them,” he said. “We, as victim advocates, should be able to fight for that person’s opportunity to still fly. I would drop everything and go fight for that person to keep flying.”

Armel said that victim advocates working “in the trenches” can help lead to change in the culture. Those cultural changes may ruffle a few feathers, but she said it is necessary.

“If there’s a little bit of boat-rocking, it’s for a good reason, because we have to change that culture,” she said. “Those advocates that are in that community can say ‘Knock it off. It’s gone too far,’ and they’re a second set of eyes for leadership. They’re saying the same things leadership would be saying.”

Gill pointed out that cultural change is particularly important because the student pilots training at Vance are the future leaders of the Air Force.

“If we have this culture for everyone around my rank, lieutenants and captains, in 15 or 20 years, when one of my peers is potentially chief of staff of the Air Force, they will remember and continue to be an advocate for this kind of culture change,” Gill said. 

In the past, pilots on flying status were not able to volunteer as victim advocates because it was believed that they could not successfully juggle a flying schedule with being on call as a victim advocate, Armel said. 

Col. Erick Turasz, the 71st Operation Group commander, felt the benefits outweighed the risks.

“Asking our ops group squadron commanders to support the SAPR victims advocate program was easy,” Turasz said. “This is a relationship built on trust and understanding. There’s no one better to care for a teammate in need than a fellow instructor.”