By Arthur MondaleMay 3, 2016
Members from all branches of service and Department of Defense civilians from across the National Capital Region came to the Pentagon April 20 for the 2nd annual "Walk-A-Lap for a Survivor," a Pentagon-hosted demonstration to end sexual assault and support its victims.
It was a collaborative effort to help the military community at-large change the way it thinks, according to organizers, and address ways to combat sexual assaults in the military while also urging those victimized by it to seek help.
For two hours, participants came to the Pentagon courtyard to walk a lap in honor of a person who overcame the trauma associated with sexual assault, some of whom overcame the trauma associated with sexual assault themselves.
"We're fortunate to be able to use the Pentagon courtyard for this event," U.S. Navy Lt. Ashley Valanzola, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and lead organizer for the demonstration, in reference to the headquarters for the DoD serving as the site for the event. "But we also have prevention centers [information booths] set up throughout the courtyard and posters for sexual assault survivors displayed to show them that the community supports them."
Guest speakers at the demonstration included publisher and sexual violence activist James Landrith, who was raped and blackmailed by a woman while serving on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps; and U.S. Navy reservist and FBI Deputy Equal Employment Opportunity Officer Jessika Rovell, who was raped during her second year of law school.
Landrith presented an inspiring universal message for Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, victim advocates, family and friends of sexual assault survivors. He also addressed underreported statistics involving female sexual predators.
"Rape is about control and humiliation, it has absolutely nothing to do with availability," Landrith said. "My rapist clearly enjoyed the domination she had over me…There are more wounded [male sexual assault survivors] than we could possibly know--and the social stigmas to just keep quiet and shake it off are immense…Many [male] survivors will only seek help just once, if at all, and how that interaction transpires will play a major role in their willingness to move forward in healing…Listen. Don't judge. And don't tell [sexual assault survivors] how you would have done x, y and z differently."
Rovell gave an equally empowering speech on how she beat the odds stacked up against her as a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, while in a relationship with a man that lasted three-and-a-half years.
"I've been blessed with healthy loving family and friends, as well as academic and career success," Rovell said. "But if you Google me, none of my many accomplishments nor the love and happiness by which I am surrounded is what pops up at the top of the search. You'll find articles about how I was raped and remained in an abusive relationship with a man the FBI has called the most prolific serial rapist in American history."
Rovell concluded her speech with a very strong message to personnel employed in the DoD in any capacity.
"If we are going to end sexual assault in the military we need to cultivate an awareness that sexual assault survivors--and unfortunately perpetrators too--look and sound just like the rest of us," Rovell said. "Choose to be the Sailor or Marine who stops the friend from becoming the victim or perpetrator. Choose to be the Soldier or Airman who listens with compassion and continues to support a survivor's career, like my commanding officer did. Choose to be the civilian who tells the sexual assault survivor that you are not alone."
After Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month is over
Actively attendant in the audience and handing out information during the event were SARC's from across D.C.-metro, and civilian community partners, who reminded attendees that sexual assault awareness shouldn't be reserved for the month of April alone.
"My work doesn't just stop at the end of April or after this walk at the Pentagon is over," said Wendy G. Kelly, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response coordinator for Headquarters and Service Battalion, Headquarters Marine Corps, Henderson Hall. "Sexual assault prevention is a continuous job 24 hours a day, 365 days out of the year."
The same sentiments were echoed by Christa Carlton, Domestic and Sexual Violence Program director at Doorways for Women and Families, located in Arlington, Virginia.
"There's a special amount of energy dedicated to sexual assault during the month of April to promote sexual assault awareness--but really every day we do a lot of work--and there are plenty of opportunities throughout the year for people to either get involved or access support and services," Carlton said.
"We're here to educate people and dispel the myths surrounding sexual assaults, rape and the statistics on the prevalence of the problem," said Melanie Carlson, a rep with Doorways for Women and Families, who was dressed as a carnival sideshow host testing people's sexual assault awareness with the 'Wheel of Knowledge' as they walked a lap for a sexual assault survivor.
The underlying purpose of the game was to ensure people walked away more engaged and informed about sexual assault prevention and awareness.
"My hope is that people walk away from this event feeling more comfortable to report sexual assault," said participant U.S. Navy Lt. Shannon Miller. "And let them know there's a lot of people ready to support them to ensure they get the services that they need to recover."
"I hope people walk away from this event less afraid to either step up, or step in to end sexual assault," said participant U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Anderson.
Near the end of 2015, the Department of Defense reported that over the past decade the number of sexual assaults or "unwanted sexual contact" decreased by 50-percent in the military, while the number of men and women who reported these crimes increased.
Pentagram Staff Writer Arthur Mondale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.