Military raising sexual assault awareness


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Military personnel across the country are trading in their camouflage, Army greens and Air Force blues on Wednesday for a pair of denim jeans as they ask the community join them in observing April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month and observe the critical awareness campaign on Wednesday as "Denim Day."

Denim Day was established on the heels of a court case that raised international attention and outrage.

In 1998, a teenage girl in Italy was raped by her driving instructor. The girl was held down on the ground by the instructor and was threatened with harm to herself and her brothers.

The instructor was tried and convicted and sentenced to jail, and his case went to the Supreme Court of Appeals in Rome. The court overturned the original ruling stating that because the victim wore very tight jeans she must have had to help remove them, thereby giving consent to have sex.

The case made international headlines, and the young woman's jeans became a symbol of the many misconceptions still surrounding sexual violence.

SSGT Melinda Gibson, National Guard, victim advocate coordinator, said in keeping with the U.S. Defense Department's nationwide initiative, the V.I. National Guard is observing Denim Day on Wednesday and encourages other residents to join them as they continue to try to raise awareness against sexual assault inside the military and in the community as a whole.

The Defense Department's campaign against sexual assault comes on the heals of some cases in the military that drew national attention and resulted in major policy changes within the department.

Last week, the Defense Department announced improvements to its sexual assault prevention and response training for all military personnel and civilian employees.

Also last week, the Defense Department, under pressure from Congress and national women's groups, announced it would review the entire military justice system.

That announcement came on the heels of case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who pleaded guilty to charges in connection with his relationship with a subordinate who accused him of assaulting her. By taking a plea deal, Sinclair, whose case made national news in March, escaped a prison sentence.

Gibson said the Defense Department is continuing its efforts to eliminate sexual assault in the military, and the military has been involved in a number of sex assault incidents in which high-ranking officials had been put in the spotlight for their unacceptable conduct inside and outside the armed forces. Since then, there has been a strong movement to send a clear message that it will not be accepted under any circumstance, she said.

"People don't believe that this has been a problem in the military, but it has," Gibson said. "People used to be afraid to make reports and the acts stayed hidden and the conduct continued, but we want to send a message that we are here for our soldiers."

She said the military has a theme "Live Our Values: Step Up To Stop Sexual Assault," and that theme empowers military personnel to stand up for the values that it advocates. Everyone has a duty to intercede if they see another person making unwelcome sexual innuendos or putting themselves at risk in any way to become a victim of any type of sexual assault, she said.

"We stand by very high values in the military, and if everyone looks out for their fellow person, then we will all be stepping up to stop sexual assault," Gibson said.

The national 2014 Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign is focused on healthy sexuality, and activists strive to raise awareness about sexual violence and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent it.

In addition to observing Wednesday as "Denim Day," the National Guard also is featuring the documentary "Invisible War" and the movie "Woman Thou Art Loosed" from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday on the drill floor of the armory in each district.

Gibson said both movies are enlightening and address mistreatment, abuse, hope, redemption and inspiration.

"Woman Thou Art Loosed" is a 2004 film by Michael Schultz and is adapted from the self-help novel by Bishop T.D. Jakes. The film tells the story of a young woman who must come to terms with a long history of sexual abuse, drug addiction and poverty.

"The Invisible War" is a 2012 documentary written and directed by Kirby Dick that gives varying perspectives about sexual assault in the military.

Gibson said the entire community is invited to join the military in wearing denim pants with a teal or white shirt and to join them for the viewing of either or both films.

For information about the observance of Denim Day and other sexual assault awareness initiatives, call Gibson at 712-8084 or send an email to melinda.b.gibson.mil@mail.mil.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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