Senior Airman Ashlie Townsend, assigned to the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, participates in the 'Thanks For Asking' domestic violence awareness campaign at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. (Justin Connaher/Air Force)
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Seventy airmen and soldiers went to work at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, last month acting out of character — late to duty, withdrawn — and appearing injured — black eyes, bruised faces.
Then they waited to see what would happen.
At Vance Air Force Base, Okla., the commander for the 71st Comptroller Squadron posted a photo of an actress in a swimsuit on the desk of a lieutenant. Maj. Dorinda Mazza then watched for a response.
Both were experiments designed to venture beyond PowerPoint slides and information booths. Both aimed to take the pulse of service members on hot-button issues: Domestic violence and sexual assault and harassment, according to Air Force news releases from the bases.
“I wanted to see if anyone in my unit would say something about a questionable photo in the work place,” Mazza said.
Army and Air Force Family Advocacy offices at Elmendorf-Richardson wanted to know whether service members would intervene when they saw a coworker clearly in distress. If they looked the other way, why?
Both experiments got mixed results, according to the news releases.
At Vance, supervisors were told not to say anything about the photo. “They are the ones everyone else would have expected to act,” Mazza said. “But we want to grow a culture that demands doing the right thing. I needed to see one of my other folks step up.”
The lieutenant’s desk was centrally located, ensuring everyone would eventually see the photo. Some said it was nice; some thought it was his girlfriend, the story said.
Tech. Sgt. Tamica Rippke said she noticed the photo right away and didn’t think too much about it. She was also taking a resiliency training assistant class that week, which included a section on sexual assault response and prevention. Two days into training, she started giving the photo more thought..
She walked up to the lieutenant, talked about the photo and asked him to take it down. Afterward, Mazza gathered everyone to gather to talk about it. Turns out others had discussed among themselves whether the picture should be in the office.
At Elmendorf-Richardson, “injured” service members, which included both enlisted members and officers, were prepared for those who asked about their wounds. They’d hand over a card that explained the experiment and listed domestic violence and sexual assault statistics and support services. They’d say: “I’m actually all right, but thanks for asking.”
On Oct. 22 and 23, the “victims” showed up late or missed formation. One of them was Col. Reba Harris, a squadron commander, who arrived late to a meeting with a black eye, according to the news release. Harris said several people stopped her on the way to work asking if she was all right. When she got to the meeting, “every jaw in the room dropped. I gave no eye contact, which is not my usual behavior. I put them at ease and asked them to sit down.”
One noncommissioned officer asked to speak with her in private in the restroom and asked if she was OK and needed any help, the story said.
Tammy Ring, who was active duty Air Force from 1995 to 2004 and now works as a civilian employee at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., said she was so impressed by the experiment at Elmendorf she shared it with others right away.
“So much of what you see in the military is PowerPoint briefs and commander’s calls. It seems the military doesn’t quite know how to get a message out so people will listen. This was a very inventive, very unexpected way to test people’s reactions,” she said.
It’s a learning experience for those who choose to step in and for those who don’t, Ring said. “I thought it was great they thought of it and great base leadership bought into it.”
“Having an experiment such as this, you want to gain information about where we are,” Diann Richardson, outreach manager for Air Force Family Advocacy, said in the news release. “We have assumptions and predictions, but to actually have someone walk into a shop with 50 people, with 50 cards in your hand and come back with 25 cards … well, it’s basic math. ”
Richardson said she next wants to find out why people didn’t ask. “If you suspect it, you need to report it” — regardless of who it is.