It is not every day that the man in charge of all of America’s Air Force calls a modest sergeant. Which is why Jennifer Smith was so surprised to get General Mark Welsh’s call.
Sgt. Smith had filed a formal complaint alleging sexual assault and harassment, which she said had gone on for years. When she finally revealed the assault to her superior officers, after years of keeping it a secret, she expected the Air Force to act.
“I was so caught off-guard by the fact that he called me, and considering who he is, and I know my place, I said, ‘Yes, sir. Well thank you for calling me.’”
“He just said that he was going to do the best that he could,” Smith told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
But as far as Sgt. Smith is concerned, the phone call, and all the conversations with her superior officers that led up to it, have amounted to nothing.
“They know the case,” she said, “but as far as I’m concerned, nothing has been done.”
The fact that Smith reported the assault, one of several she suffered, was in itself a rarity.
According to the recent documentary “The Invisible War,” about rape in the military, 33% of sexual assaults are not reported because the victim’s superior officers is a friend of the assailant. And 25% are not reported because the superior officer is himself the assailant.
“I kind of didn’t tell anyone,” Sgt. Smith said. “I came back, went to work the next day like nothing happened, and buried it.”
Sgt. Smith said she knew many people who were assaulted. But for many like Smith, who is a 17-year-veteran of the Air Force, they feel like they have invested too much in their careers to jeopardize it by reporting assault.
Often, the harassment comes in a seemingly more benign, but just as destructive, form.
Sgt. Smith was compiling a report from files on a shared server when she came across a songbook with explicitly pornographic lyrics.
The page read, “F*** songs and Trash Tunes.”
“The reason that I didn’t come forward was because of stuff like this,” she said. “I just didn’t think that it would be taken care of or taken seriously.”
The pornography seemed like it was almost de rigueur for the Air Force.
But the event that truly changed Sgt. Smith happened while she was stationed in Balad, Iraq.
“I was assaulted by an Army personnel and he basically just grabbed and threw me up against the wall,” she said. “When I came back from Iraq I was different. That time was very different because it was so aggressive and it was so hostile.”
After some time back in the U.S., her husband convinced her that she needed to seek medical help, and come forward to her Air Force superiors. She was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Regarding her complaint she said, “I started at the lowest level of the chain, and went all the way to the top.”
Sgt. Smith is a 17-year veteran of the Air Force, and has come forward with her story just a few years shy of being able to retire with full pension and benefits.
“My father was in Vietnam,” Sgt. Smith told Amanpour. “And I remember coming home when I was a junior in high school and saying, ‘Dad, I think I want to join the army or the Marine Corps.’ And he said, ‘No, honey, we’re going to take you down to the Air Force recruiter, because you’ll be safe there.’”
CNN’s Juliet Fuisz produced this piece for television.