RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The U.S. Air Force is looking for new ways to combat a problem in its ranks: high numbers of sexual assault. Nearly 800 cases were reported last year, and many more are never reported at all. Commanders at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio are encouraging young servicemen and women to come forward, so they're letting new recruits take the lead. Emily McCord of WYSO explains.
TIFFANY SCHMUKER: Can I get quiet, please?
EMILY MCCORD, BYLINE: Tiffany Schmuker is dressed casually in civilian clothes. She stands in front of a group of a dozen or so college students. They're actors, and she's directing a rehearsal for a play that will take place at Wright-Patt.
SCHMUKER: We're going to start scene one. Kyle.
MCCORD: The play is called "Unexpected Events." It's hosted by a newly formed group of young airmen called AFJS, for Air Force Junior Support. The performance resembles one of those dinner theater murder mysteries, with a few exceptions; the crime here is sexual assault. The play is a teaching tool, a way to talk about a serious problem with a light touch.
SCHMUKER: That's what we need.
MCCORD: The program was set up in January at the request of leadership at Wright-Patt. AFJS helps young men and women acclimate to military life, with a focus on sexual assault prevention. Twenty-four-year-old Jhosselin Alonzo wants to raise awareness about sexual assault but wants to do it in a way that goes beyond the usual military PowerPoint presentation.
JHOSSELIN ALONZO: So, seriously, like, this is one of the really good ways that we're going to catch the attention of the young generation.
MCCORD: The sexual assault mystery theater creates camaraderie and explains what to do in case of sexual assault. Alonzo says they also want create an atmosphere that removes the fear of reporting.
ALONZO: It's intimidating, you know, when you have to put a report, you know, on a supervisor or something like that. And, you know, a lot of times as young airmen, we don't want to just disturb the peace within our work areas, and, you know, I think that that would be one reason why a lot of, you know, reports aren't put.
COLONEL CASSIE BARLOW: And it affects the entire organization every time it happens. So, we take it very seriously.
MCCORD: That's Colonel Cassie Barlow, commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patt. She says another reason cases are unreported is that airmen don't know enough about sexual assault or where to go for help.
BARLOW: It's a very uncomfortable conversation for them, and they start to squirm in their seat. You know, it's kind of like a parent talking to a teenager. And I tell them it's OK. You can squirm. But we need to make sure that everybody understands exactly what sexual assault is.
MCCORD: Barlow says every new airman at the base gets an orientation on what sexual assault is and how to report it. That information is on banners posted at the gates and magnets in every restroom. Recently, Wright-Patt underwent a clean-sweep inspection, ridding work areas of any material deemed inappropriate. That's a step in the right direction, says Rachel Natelson with the Service Women's Action Network. But, she says, more needs to be done to change a longstanding culture.
RACHEL NATELSON: The military's, until now, been allowed to police itself on these issues. And that's never a good idea. It's outside accountability that keeps people and organizations and institutions in check.
MCCORD: The Air Force recently launched a pilot program that will give sexual assault victims legal aid and help them navigate the criminal justice systems with lawyers trained to address their specific needs. The program will run for one year, and may be a model for other branches of the military to follow suit. For NPR News, I'm Emily McCord.