Commentary by Paula Spooner
81st Medical Operations Squadron family advocacy outreach manager
11/1/2012 - KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) -- Every
year, the Family Advocacy Program staff plans and implements a
community awareness campaign designed to educate Keesler Air Force Base
Airmen, as well as reinforce the reality that prevention and detection
of interpersonal violence is truly a base-wide responsibility.
This year, FAP teamed up with Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Kory Cornum, 81st Medical
Group commander, to conduct a social experiment. Fifteen male and
female volunteers of various ranks, ages and job descriptions were
recruited to don realistic moulage injuries indicative of non-accidental
trauma. Each victim was then embedded within his or her duty section to
conduct the routine day-to-day responsibilities of the job.
The objective? It was to observe and evaluate bystander response to the
perceived injury, both from friends and co-workers as well as casual
observers. Would others approach, express concern and offer support?
Would the bruises, bites or scratches be a source of discomfort or
embarrassment for others and responded to with jokes or deliberate
If approached by concerned bystanders, volunteers offered no
explanation, but handed them cards explaining the experiment, confirming
their actual safety and thanking the wingmen for intervening.
Otherwise, the volunteers were to go about their normal daily routine --
working, going out to lunch or hitting the gym for a quick workout. The
volunteer victims were instructed to pay careful attention to their own
personal thoughts and feelings as they observed others.
Many of the participants reported being surprised by their observations.
One common finding was the frequency with which the clearly visible
injuries were actively ignored, even in situations in which they
interacted with others one-on-one. In fact, 61 percent of the tallied
responses were described as "purposely ignoring the injury or saying
Virtually all participants reported that many of the colleagues closest
to them seemed the least likely to respond. All participants agreed that
when this occurred, the negative impact was significantly greater than
feeling ignored by acquaintances or strangers.
Although there were a few reported exceptions, most Air Force members in
leadership positions expressed concern and offered support. The
majority of participants agreed that the attitude with which a bystander
approached them was critical, as many were addressed in the presence of
others or in a teasing or joking manner.
Virtually all volunteer victims reported experiencing an emotional
response, citing sadness, depression, anger, disappointment and hurt as
examples. One victim wrote, "If I was an actual victim that day, it
would have been one of the worst days of my life. The lack of concern
from my peers could have hurt and angered me more than the actual
(domestic violence) attack."
This feedback is consistent with what we know about interpersonal
violence. The message conveyed by a bystander's lack of response is,
"I'm not worth anyone taking the time. No one cares. I must deserve it."
Worse, the senses of betrayal, hopelessness and despair experienced
when someone they trust chooses to ignore the signs of non-accidental
trauma are often the toughest hurdle for survivors to overcome in
counseling. It's not that most people don't care, won't take the time or
think it's none of their business. To the contrary, most people are
concerned; they want to do the right thing, but too often people don't
intervene because they worry that they might offend the victim, or they
simply have no idea what to say.
Maybe the biggest lesson about the experiment is the reminder that every
one of us has tremendous power in others' lives. You don't need to know
details about the private lives of everyone in your office to recognize
if one of them suddenly comes to work with a black eye. And after
talking to hundreds of trauma survivors through the years, I can tell
you this: If someone is being hurt, your silence damages far more than
if you should say something that seems awkward.
So be discreet, be respectful, be kind. If you are concerned, say
something like, "Hey, if you want to talk or you ever need anything, I'm
always here." Those simple words of compassion have the potential to
become a lifeline that might become the hope that makes a difference in
that person's life.