U.S. Air Force airmen will remember the shoulder “ropes,” or aiguillettes, worn by student leaders at tech school. White for “chapel guides,” green for dormitory “bay chiefs,” yellow for “flight leaders,” red for “shift leaders’ – airmen-in-training have a number of opportunities to be selected for special leadership roles, and to display their distinction with pride.
Now the Air Force has a new rope for student leaders: the teal rope, which signifies that the student has received special training from the Sexual Assault Prevention Office (SAPRO). The teal-ropers will be there to “serve as a link between non-prior service students and SAPRO for information and referral support.”
Says Chief Master Sergeant Angelica Johnson, 81st Training Wing command chief (senior enlisted leader): “This is an opportunity for Airmen to be leaders and help regulate their fellow Airmen on an important issue.”
Those who haven’t been in the military may not know that all the services have sexual assault/harassment prevention programs, and have had them for years. Enlistees and officers-in-training receive instruction on spotting, resisting, preventing, and dealing with sexual harassment and assault during their basic training. They typically receive this training during longer technical schools as well.
Then they go to their duty assignments. Each commander there is responsible for continued training, and the appointment of an officer and senior enlisted leader to manage the service’s programs at the command, and provide advice and counsel to the commander. Each commander’s department heads, and his senior enlisted leaders, are responsible for executing his programs within their departments.
Chaplains are trained to counsel servicemembers who have been the victims of sexual harassment or assault. Higher-echelon commands maintain programs for the proper training of psychiatric and other medical personnel, as well as monitoring the programs of their subordinate commands, and dealing rapidly with allegations of sexual harassment or assault anywhere within their command purview.
I’m telling you all this to make it clear that the military already takes this problem seriously, and has done so for the last 30 years. I’m not convinced that the teal rope will make a difference, nor do I think this is the kind of issue that ought to be distinguished with an aiguillette.
It’s a leap of emotion to suggest that it is. A lot of stupid human tricks affect mission readiness: besides sexual misconduct, there are the old standbys, alcohol and drugs, along with 19-year-old guys being morons with firearms, 21-year-old guys getting into fights in bars, 35-year-old guys and gals being irresponsible with money, spouses, and children, and 20-year-old gals getting pregnant unintentionally. Commands are always dealing with these things, both because there are human people in the military, and because there are male and female human people in the military. But most of the servicemembers at any given time are not creating problems. It’s a very small percentage of them who take up a command leader’s time.
Distinguishing leadership in the military ought to be about military leadership – inspiration, initiative, mission accomplishment – not prevention. A good leader will do the right thing about all of the stupid human problems that come with a military. Dealing with sexual assault in the ranks isn’t a specialized-training problem, it’s a straight-on leadership problem; it goes to the character of the leaders and the command environment. It’s not a triumph to prevent it, or punish it; it’s a failure if you don’t.
Unless the Air Force starts putting aiguillettes on students who’ve gotten training in alcohol-abuse counseling or domestic-violence counseling – and I hope it doesn’t – the teal rope doesn’t fit with the other distinguishing aiguillettes as a leadership marker. Those markers should be reserved for leadership in the military mission or morale-enhancement (e.g., the black rope for student activity teams).
I note also that while sexual assault is comparatively straightforward, at least in terms of defining it, sexual harassment is not. It’s hard enough for people in their thirties, forties, and fifties – commanders, senior enlisted leaders – to sort out sexual harassment complaints. The teal rope won’t make it easier for young airmen to know what’s right or do it. Some will probably fail to report or acknowledge prosecutable events, in which fellow airmen have sustained real psychological or physical injuries. Others may behave overzealously, and that won’t improve unity or esprit de corps.
The leadership of older, more experienced NCOs and officers will always be needed to deal justly and compassionately with crimes like sexual assault and harassment. The teal rope suggests something has changed when it hasn’t. It’s misplaced symbolism, and in a period of steep defense cuts, it looks like misplaced priorities as well.