(Photo: Air Force Times)
On the evening of Dec. 16, 2015, members of the Joint Base Elemendorf Richardson community received an odd email. As part of their outreach efforts, the Alaskan base's Sexual Assault and Prevention office – commonly referred to by the acronym SAPR - had given away tubes of lip balm.
They had to be destroyed.
"It has come to our attention that approximately 400 'SAPR lip balm' promotional items … contain trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)," the public address read, referring to the active ingredient in the drug marijuana. "The Sexual Assault Response Coordinator office has ceased the distribution of the lip balm … and requests that you dispose this product, if you received one of these items."
Both the Pentagon and the Air Force – the lead service at the base – ban personnel from ingesting any substances that contain hemp seed or oil from those seeds. The flying branch specifically worries the small amounts of THC could trigger a positive result during random drug screening.
On Dec. 14, personnel from the 673rd Air Base Wing had sent the vendor a "heads up" email explaining the situation for future reference, according to records We Are the Mighty obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Earlier, the Wing had reached out to the Office of Special Investigations for advice on how to proceed.
The next day, Global Promotional Sales responded by pointing out that the lip balm did not contain any THC, along with at least two follow-up messages asking to chat with base staff. They ultimately sent along a 2001 scientific study from Leson Environmental Consulting that concluded hemp oil would never have enough THC to register in a drug test. At the same time, Wing staff and the SAPR office were debating what to do with the tubes of fruit-flavored moisturizer.
Citing personal privacy exemptions, censors redacted the names of all Air Force personnel in the records. However, they did not remove the name of the Global Promotional Sales representative.
"I've been told that lip balm made from Hemp [sic] will not result in a positive for THC," an unnamed colonel in the 673d's commander's office wrote in one Email. "How many have you handed out?"
While the colonel's position is widely accepted, rules are rules. "Because of the regulations banning any use of hemp products we understand that the product must be disposed of," the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator shot back.
After untold hours working on the issue, the base leadership decided to send out the public address and ask personnel to voluntarily trash the items. In total, the SAPR office had purchased 1,600 "Fruity Lip Moisturizers" at a cost of over $1,580, according to an invoice.
The Joint Base Elemendorf Richardson public affairs office told We Are the Mighty in an email that they were unsure what had happened to the more than 1,000 tubes of lip balm that the SAPR office had not handed out. They didn't know whether the vendor reimbursed the cost or offered credit on a future order.
What we do know is that for at least three days, both the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and the 673d's staff were actively involved dealing with a problem that took away from their core mission in more ways than one. Emblazoned with the SAPR logo and the text "Consent, Ask, Communicate," the lip balm itself seems to have served an unclear purpose.
"I mean, just the weight of those emails … the weight of coordination spent on pursuing swag and trinkets," Tony Carr, a retired Air Force officer and outspoken critic of many of the flying branch's policies, told We Are the Mighty in an Email after reviewing the documents. "This is what SARCs are doing while the issue of sexual assault continues to hover somewhere between confused and irresolute."
Legislators, celebrities, and others have repeatedly criticized the Pentagon failing to improve the situation. While the services have focused on education, accountability seems to be the real factor holding back progress on the issue.
The Pentagon was forced to admit that "sexual assaults continue to be under-reported" when they released their latest sexual assault prevention strategy on May 1, 2014. The new policy cited a need to pursue offenders regardless of rank and make sure that accusers did not suffer retaliation from their superiors, who were often the attackers.
Retired Air Force Col. Christensen, who worked in the military legal system for more than two decades, said the incident highlighted the Pentagon's "very simplistic" responses to very difficult problems, like rape. Christensen is now President of Protect Our Defenders, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit advocacy group that focuses on sexual violence in the U.S. military.
"They think they can powerpoint their way out of it," Christensen lamented, describing seemingly endless briefings and courses on the ills of sexual assault. He specifically singled out the bystander training as "pretty much ridiculous," adding that he was not aware of anyone being punished for not speaking up on behalf of a victim.
Of course, both Carr and Christensen were quick to note that these sorts of responses were not necessarily limited to one particular crisis. "It reinforces the 'leadership by harassment' approach of inventing and then enforcing rules with no valid military necessity," Carr said. "I'm amazed at the extent to which this continues happening."
Christensen compared the idea of handing out lip balm, mints, and other novelties as a solution to sexual assault to the much maligned fluorescent yellow belts troops have wear in many situations. Instead of really delving into how to prevent people getting killed while running or doing other activities at night, the Pentagon simply decreed that everyone had to wear the reflective wraps nearly everywhere, nearly all the time, he said.
But this sort of response is especially galling when it comes to sexual violence. Gimmicks like the lip balm "trivializes the impact of sexual assault" and contribute to troops generally "tuning out" the messages, Christensen added.
To really start fixing the problem, Christensen says the Pentagon and its critics both need to recognize that it will be impossible eradicate sexual assault from the military entirely. Instead, the focus needs to be on treating servicemen and women like adults who know it's a crime, empowering investigators and prosecutors to go after attackers and instill an overall sense of accountability up and down the ranks.
Until then, SAPR offices will easily find themselves spending precious time dealing with promotional missteps than actually advocating for a healthier climate within the services.