Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward (Air Force)
As part of its crackdown on sexual assaults, the Air Force plans to ask airmen what they think should be done to fix the problem, said Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, who was recently put in charge of the service’s expanded Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office.
“We’ve been doing a lot of talking, but what we need to do now is to do a lot of listening because I believe our airmen have the solution to this,” Woodward said in an interview with Air Force Times. “They understand the problem, and they know what needs to be done to help conquer it.”
Over the next few months, the Air Force plans to hold focus groups with airmen and ask airmen to submit suggestions online about how best to tackle sexual assault, Woodward said.
“The vice chief is working to put together a website so that airmen can present or discuss this issue in an open forum and pass information to the vice chief and us, similar to the ‘Every Dollar Counts’-type scenario,” she said.
The office is looking at how best to have a dialogue with airmen and civilians via the website and social media, said Air Force spokesman Maj. Eric Badger. Details about the project are being worked out.
Most importantly, the Air Force wants to know what victims feel can be done to prevent sexual assaults, Woodward said. The service also wants to hear from victims what it can do to make the process work better for them.
“We want to listen to our airmen, supervisors, commanders on what they need from us as far as resources go or help and policy to help them conquer the problem,” she said.
Woodward was appointed to the job after her predecessor, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, was arrested in May and charged with sexual battery. Krusinski’s trial in civilian court is slated for July 18.
Since then, the Air Force has elevated the office’s importance by putting it under a two-star general and increased its staff from two to 31 people, Woodward said.
The staff, which is being assembled, will be a mix of military and civilian personnel, said Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley. Right now, 14 people have been assigned to the office full time and ultimately, the staff will include an attorney, a representative from the Office of Special Investigations and analysts.
Woodward said her top three priorities are communicating across the force that sexual harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable behavior, building a culture where airmen understand they are held to a higher standard than the rest of society and restoring the American public’s confidence in the Air Force.
All of this will involve working with wing commanders, command chiefs and supervisors to build a culture in each unit where airmen understand that they have to live up to their core values both on- and off-duty, she said.
“Then, what we’ll do is find those programs both internally and externally — in that assessment phase we’ll be talking to the advocacy groups, to specialists who are out there, experts in the field, and finding out what are the programs that have the biggest bang for the buck,” Woodward said. “What is really going to work in helping us to determine the best way to deter sexual harassment and sexual assault, how to best take care of victims and how to hold perpetrators accountable.”
While she brings many qualifications to her new position, Woodward does not feel being a woman makes her specially suited to fight sexual assaults.
“I don’t see this as a gender issue; I think that’s really important, and we have victims of both genders, and I hope to be the voice for all of those victims,” she said.
The path that leads to sexual assault starts when airmen show disrespect toward one another — for any reason — and that is what needs to be fixed, Woodward said.
Ultimately, the Air Force can reduce the number of sexual assaults but not eliminate them, she said.
“Maybe some day we’ll be able to identify somebody in advance and be able to keep them from entering the Air Force, but until that day, what we want to do is build a culture that helps us identify those individuals at the earliest possible time and — if they are able to commit crime — hold them accountable and get them incarcerated and kicked out of our service as quickly as possible,” she said.
Woodward acknowledges reducing sexual assaults in the Air Force will be a significant challenge, but difficult does not mean impossible.
“I’ve been in the Air Force for 31 years now, and I have never once seen our Air Force when it’s committed to something not be able to overcome any obstacle — and we have certainly had significant ones out there — but every single challenge that’s been presented to us, we’ve been able to overcome,” she said.