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Of symbolism and 'zero tolerance'

  • Published
  • By Col. Scott DeThomas
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing commander
This week we celebrate Flag Day, June 14. Originally developed to celebrate the birth of our nation's flag, it has grown into a national day of recognition that dates back to President Truman's official signing of the Act of Congress in 1949 that designated 14 June as National Flag Day. Most Americans take great pride in the symbolism that emanates from "Old Glory" as she waves from the porches of homes or the hands of our nation's heroes. For me personally, the flag is the highest element of symbolism that men and women who serve our nation represent. Of course, we have other symbols of service in the military.

The uniforms of our military services always provide a symbol of the men and women who chose service before self. They represent a unique segment of society that volunteered to serve their nation and the sacrifices that they and their loved ones make in the name of that service. Our neighbors outside our gates are proud of their service men and women that MacDill represents and often look to the uniform as reassurance that they are safe knowing that those of us in uniform are protecting their freedoms.

Raising our right hand and taking the oath of enlistment or commission is another symbol of the profession of arms. The concept of serving "freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion" along with swearing to defend our Constitution "against all enemies, foreign and domestic" are two areas of the oath that ring true in all we do. They are key differences that separate the United States military from all other militaries in the world.

These symbols remind us of the importance and value of our service but also of the responsibility that comes with it. Whenever any one of us fails in that in that responsibility, that failure invites deeper reflection by all of us. And so, another event will join Flag Day on our calendars this month: the Secretary of Defense has ordered a Sexual Assault Stand-Down Day to address the acceleration of this crime within the armed services. As I reflect on our cherished symbols of military service in light of these sexual assaults, I can't help thinking about the true meaning of the words in our oath of office "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Often times, there are two clear and distinct sides of a conflict, the good and the bad, and we immediately associate the bad side as the enemy side. Other times, though, the enemies we face are not so quickly recognized.

How would you characterize, for example, those of our fellow service members behind the rising number-- 60 percent by some estimates--of sexual assaults against other service members? Or how would you describe our own brothers and sisters in arms who have not ensured zero tolerance means zero tolerance with regard to sexual assault? In addition to the outright betrayal and incredible pain they've introduced into the lives of their victims, military sexual assailants and those who've tolerated their actions have undermined our combat capability. Thanks to their traitorous attacks on their fellow fighters, America's military personnel must now divide their personal energy, attention and effort between enemies without and enemies within. That's no way to win wars. After all, "A house divided against itself cannot stand".

These attacks are destroying the lives of our teammates and tarnishing cherished symbols of military service that you and our forbearers have polished for more than two centuries of honorable service.

They must come to an end, and we are the ones to bring that end about. It starts with men and women embracing the concept of zero tolerance meaning zero tolerance. It starts with those who see others exhibiting behavior that could lead to sexual assault and putting a stop to it, simply because it's the right thing to do. It starts with leaders and followers having the moral courage to intervene when necessary to stop behavior that contributes to or fosters an environment that is tolerant of improper behavior.

Each of you has a role in setting those conditions that allow our service men and women to serve without fear. These conditions are set by leaders and supervisors at all ranks.

The conditions are also set by followers who cultivate respect and trust as critical elements of our military that are not compromised at any level. Only then will we eliminate this scourge that threatens our people, our warfighting capability and the treasured symbols of our great nation.