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Bases launch self-defense classes to combat sex assault

Nov. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Eve Torres, self-defense seminar instructor with Gracie Academy Women Empowered, demonstrates a kick drill with Rener Gracie, a seminar instructor.
Eve Torres, self-defense seminar instructor with Gracie Academy Women Empowered, demonstrates a kick drill with Rener Gracie, a seminar instructor. (Senior Airman Katrina Heikkinen/Air Force)
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Senior Airman Cortney Paxton didn’t plan to take a five-day self-defense course at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., last month. She was a last-minute fill-in for a sick friend.

But it turns out the course was just what she needed.

Paxton, a photojournalist, was in technical training several years ago when she found herself in an isolated area with a fellow airman she trusted who forced himself on her, she said.

“I’ll just say I didn’t know what to do,” she said. Paxton never reported the assault.

She still isn’t sure why. But she believes she would respond differently today.

“What surprised me the most is the amount of confidence I got after taking” the seminar, Paxton said. She now feels equipped to handle a similar situation — and to come forward if such a thing were to happen again.

Which is what instructors of Gracie Academy Self Defense Systems hope participants will take away.

“The core of the mission is to essentially reduce the risk and frequency of assaults by giving airmen the confidence to define boundaries — mental, emotional, physical,” said Rener Gracie, whose family developed the program nearly 20 years ago. “You aren’t going to establish boundaries you aren’t capable of defending or enforcing.”

The Gracie Academy first brought Self Defense Systems to airmen at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., last spring with the help of 5th Security Forces Squadron Deputy Commander Maj. Tyrone Bess.

Bess was already teaching martial arts for the Gracie family when he decided the self-defense program could be beneficial for the Air Force as it deals with a rising number of sexual assault reports.

“This program is so viable and so real for everybody. It’s by no means a one-stop program. But it is extremely effective, and it answers a lot of questions,” he said.

Two hundred airmen at Minot and Malmstrom have participated in the program, which is among the latest initiatives targeting sexual assault that go beyond the computer-based training and PowerPoint briefings airmen say they have grown weary of.

The program starts by teaching airmen to be aware of their surroundings and recognize warning signs, Bess said. It also teaches what the seminar calls the “triangle of victimization.”

“Every sexual assault must have three pieces: a perpetrator, a target and an opportunity. Sexual assault cannot happen unless all three pieces are there,” Bess said.

“Sometimes when people think about self-defense, they associate it with ... throwing punches and kicks and the perpetrator moves on,” he said. But the techniques taught in the seminar are a last resort, he said.

The program also focuses on non-stranger attacks, Bess said, because those account for the majority of the military’s sexual assaults.

“Non-stranger assaults are very calculated. We talk a lot about that. If you are in the same organization and we’ve gone out five times and people see us together — now it’s very hard for that bystander to notice a [threatening] situation,” Bess said. “It’s very important for people to understand how boundaries are being established. If [a would-be attacker] crosses that boundary — they offer me a drink, I say no, and then they insist — it’s a red flag,” Bess said.

The seminar teaches how to neutralize the 15 most common attacks, from being grabbed by the hair or wrists to being put in chokehold or pinned down by a weapon-wielding assailant.

Bess wants to see the seminar go Air Force-wide, and taught to airmen as they come through basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

Lt. Col. Jill Whitesell, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office at the Pentagon, said there are currently no plans to take the self-defense course servicewide.

“It’s a great initiative ... We certainly applaud their program,” she said in an email.

For those who have already experienced the trauma of sexual assault, the program can serve as a kind of therapy.

“It gives you that ability to look back and realize it wasn’t your fault,” Paxton said. “It helps you deal with it in a different way. Obviously, I wasn’t the only female who had that situation, and we could talk among each other. The instructors were good about that, too.”

Each person who goes through the five-day training seminar is also certified to teach it.

“The Air Force has 200 certified instructors now,” said Bess, a number he hopes continues to grow.

Paxton is now among them.

“I learned so much from the class,” she said. “I’d want anyone to know what I learned.”■

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