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Help End Serial Offenders

Airman looking into the mirror sees reflection of future Airmen.

Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Debra Gingrich, 913th Airlift Group development & training flight program manager, looks in the mirror and reflects on her journey to help future Airmen find the strength to report sexual assault. The Catch a Serial Offender program, or CATCH Program, gives people making a Restricted Sexual Assault Report an opportunity to anonymously disclose suspect information to help the Department of Defense identify repeat offenders. (Air Force Reserve graphic by Senior Amn Chase Cannon)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. --

Remember the last time you had the wind knocked out of you.  It brought you to your knees, eyes were stinging, you are gasping to breathe, you feel a little disoriented, and you can hardly speak. 

Early on in my Air Force career I was recovering from a trauma, and I focused on just trying to breathe.  I was faced with the decision to file a Restricted or Unrestricted Report against a coworker for sexual assault/conduct.  I was newer, less than a year, to the organization and feared no one would believe me and also feared how my chain of command would respond to my allegations since my offender was established within the organization.  These were my personal fears and because of them I decided the right path for me at the time was to file a Restricted Report.

After a requested transfer to another squadron, at a different base, the issue was behind me and I was back on my feet breathing freely again, or so I thought.  While deployed, I was discussing how to bring changed to help stop sexual harassment/assaults from occurring and spoke briefly on my personal experience from my previous assignment. After speaking to my new direct supervisor of my deployed chain of command, this Restricted Report became an Unrestricted Report.

Despite my fear, I completed the investigation with the support of my chain of command.  I will never forget the Major who I worked for at the time.  As I sat in tears, in his office, trying to explain why I didn't file an Unrestricted Report and do more when it first occurred, I relayed my earlier fears.  Without hesitation he said to me, "I believe you.  Take your time, I am here to get you through this."  That simple, sincere, statement enabled me to get through the investigation and remains with me today.  He was like a coach running over to tell you to hold your hands over your head, to breathe slowly, and to make sure no more harm happened during the game.  He gave me room and encouragement to catch my breath and get back into the game when I was ready.

I chose to not testify against my perpetrator and only submitted my statement through the Air Force Office of Special Investigation.  I clearly remember telling the OSI Investigator, "I'm not his first, nor will I be his last."

As I reflected on my personal situation and became aware of more cases against my offender, I wanted to find a way to give the power back to the victims; to give them room to breathe.  I remember thinking, if only the other unknown victims knew about me.  I wanted them to know that I was there for them and that they weren't alone, that I believed them.  Oftentimes offenders do not stop at one, especially in cases where Restricted Reports are completed and they are not held accountable for their actions.

I personally know how difficult it is to come forward, but what could be done to ensure repeated offenders are stopped, that our Airmen are protected from serial offenders?  I recently found out about a program created by the Department of Defense titled, Catch a Serial Offender, also referred to as "CATCH."

The DoD created CATCH to discover if offenders in Restricted Reports are a potential match in any other Restricted Reports.  This program enables people making a Restricted Report an opportunity to anonymously disclose suspect information to help identify serial offenders.  If a "match" occurs, sexual assault victims can decide to convert their Restricted Report to Unrestricted to initiate an investigation. The CATCH program was launched in August 2019 and by the end of April 2020, over 239 Service members made reports, resulting in 5 matches.

Since learning of this program, I am now taking a deep breath to loudly speak about the DoD CATCH Program to unit personnel. 

For more information visit: https://www.sapr.mil/CATCH or speak to your local Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.