ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- “Are you going to protect the family?”
That’s the question actress Sandra Bullock asks her football playing son about his teammates in the blockbuster movie “The Blind Side.” It’s also the question Col. Dan Mitchell, U.S. Army Garrison Rock Island Arsenal commander asked attendees at RIA’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention Program event held in Heritage Hall April 18.
In his remarks opening the event’s showing of The Clothesline Project, a visual display of T-shirts with messages from abused survivors about their experiences, Mitchell said it’s up to all members of the Total Army Family to do their part to help end sexual violence in our communities.
April is recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. This year, the Army’s theme for its campaign is “Intervene We Are a Team: There is US in TrUSt. Can They Trust in You?”
This campaign highlights the importance of building a culture of trust through intervention and prevention of unwanted sexual behavior. The message also emphasizes everyone should all play an active role in keeping one another safe by creating a culture of trust and stepping up when we witness distressing or inappropriate behavior.
“We are all members of the Total Army Family,” Mitchell said, “and just as we would speak up and aid our mothers, sons, daughters, and fathers if they were the objects of abuse and harassment, we must commit ourselves to do the same for our Total Army Family -- the Soldiers, Civilians, and contractors we work with every day. We need to do all we can to make sure the answer to the question 'Can They Trust in You?' is a resounding 'Yes!' for the RIA community.”
The backdrop for his remarks were t-shirts from The Clothesline Project, designed to increase awareness of the impact of violence and abuse, to honor a survivor’s strength to continue, and to provide another avenue for them to courageously break the silence that often surrounds their experience.
Strung on clotheslines with clothespins, each shirt is made by a survivor of violence or by someone who has lost a loved one to violence. The color of each shirt represents a different type of violence, and the majority involves some sort of sexual trauma.
Debonie Wagener, Garrison Resource Management officer, found the Clothesline event “powerful.”
“Looking at those shirts brings out so many emotions; anger, sadness, helplessness, but also hope,” she said.
Wagener also believes it’s time to focus more awareness on this issue, because often it can happen to someone close to you without you ever even knowing.
“We need to keep people aware that it’s happening, possibly closer than you think,” she said. “Hopefully events like this will help diminish some of the ‘taboo’ culture that surrounds talking about it. It’s uncomfortable, but this conversation needs to continue.”
Chelsea Davis, a management analyst, said she loved the project and thinks a key message for all is that for those who feel they aren’t strong enough to speak up for help, they will find safety in numbers.
“The project was extremely impactful,” she said. “The emotions felt through the t-shirts were tremendously vulnerable and courageous on the victims’ part. Some are unable to physically speak about the assault because of the emotions they may hold, and their words are silenced. This project allows those to speak and feel heard.”
Davis believes the more attention given on abusive behavior, the more the message will reach victims that despite what they are conditioned to believe, this behavior is not normal or acceptable.
“Victims may think that the actions of the abuser are normal and or accepted,” she said. “Abusers have a strong ability to manipulate victims and scare them into a submissive state. With awareness, it allows victims to feel heard and know that the abuse is not and cannot be accepted.”
Angie Stone, a supervisory management analyst, found the event to be an opportunity for the greater community to understand that much of the abuse victims experience goes unseen, and to recognize signs of potential abuse being experienced by others.
“This brings awareness to others about the victims who are suffering daily, some of whom we may know,” she said. “Some victims wear their battle scars on the exterior, others on the interior, so it can be hard to identify a victim. Often, victims feel alone. Everyone deserves to be heard and to receive the support of their battle buddies.”
She also said these events need to continue, until the message is clear to everyone that sexual assault and harassment is wrong and will not be tolerated.
“I think it’s important to continue bring awareness to this topic because if you don’t identify it as a problem, you can’t stop it from happening,” Stone said.
And that is what Mitchell said must happen to put an end to sexual violence for good.
“This starts with each one of us committing to do our part in the fight against sexual assault and harassment.”
Those impacted by sexual assault can contact the RIA 24/7 Hotline at 309-229-8412 or the DoD Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247; additional resources are available on the Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention website at www.armyresilience.army.mil/sharp.