MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --
True wingmen exercise moral courage in difficult situations; they know what right and wrong looks like and they intervene when needed. These are common phrases heard in the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program.
For three Airmen from the 366th Operations Support Squadron, these instructions recently became more than words. It was something they saw, felt and lived.
Senior Airman Jamie Ellis, Airman 1st Class Rachel Burchnell and Airman 1st Class Gabrielle Swift had been attending a local Boise State University football game when they saw two college-aged students who looked like they needed help. By stepping in, they prevented a bad situation from potentially being worse.
It began at about 2 a.m. when their squadron finished a volunteer project to clean up the BSU stadium following a late night football game. They saw a man walking from the commercial district where the after-football festivities continued, and he was struggling to direct a very intoxicated woman.
"At first, they looked like boyfriend and girlfriend," said Ellis, from Pawnee, Okla. "She was really drunk, and it looked like he was trying to get her home or something. She kept falling down so I thought they might need some help. It didn't look like they were going to get very far."
Almost without discussing it, the three Airmen collectively walked over to offer assistance.
"She was bent over with her arms by her feet, and he was holding her from the back," said Burchnell, a Greenville, Tenn., native. "It just didn't look right, and then I saw her arms go limp."
At first it just looked like the woman needed to help.
With both intoxicated, her more than him, the Airmen offered to help him get her home. Except, he didn't know where she lived, and the night got longer and more difficult from that point on.
Working in airfield management and the tower, these Airmen are trained to notice little details. Safety is a main concern as they conduct airfield checks, distribute flight plans, or maintain inbound flight data and ensure aircraft taxi and land securely. It was the little things that night which kept raising flags.
A1C Gabrielle Swift, 366th OSS
and Pine Hill, N.J. native
He was a friend from school but didn't seem very concerned about her condition as she fell to the concrete and hit her head. It was alarming that he had scratches all over his face, and noteworthy that he said she lost her cell phone.
"When I first started talking to them, we were carrying her to the car, and she kept saying my cell phone, my cell phone. I lost my cell phone," recalled Burchnell. "I thought she left it at the bar and told her someone would probably get it back to her. He said 'no she dropped it in the drainpipe.' Later on he handed us her phone; I was like 'you told me she dropped it.'"
Red flags trumpeted in the Airmen's minds, and as the night progressed, things seemed weirder, Burchnell added.
Now loaded in the car, the Airmen asked the girl for her address and began heading in that direction.
"We got to the address, and she said 'this isn't my house. I don't want to be here,'" said Swift, who hails from Pine Hill, N.J.
His reaction to the wrong address was alarming.
"He was like, 'oh just leave us here, we'll be fine,'" said Swift. "It seemed kind of sketchy that she said that wasn't her house, and yet he wanted to stay there."
Ellis elaborated, explaining:
"She kept inverting the numbers for the address, so she really didn't know her address. We passed a bank, and he was like, 'oh just leave us in this parking lot,'" said Ellis, who replied, "we don't mind taking you to your house; it's not a big deal."
He kept trying to get us to leave them at places; it was frustrating, said Ellis.
"It was uncomfortable at that point," she said. "We didn't feel comfortable leaving them by themselves."
SrA Jamie Ellis, 366th OSS
and Pawnee, Okla., native
Things began looking brighter when Burchnell got another address out of her; then the Airmen were jolted back to square-one.
"Yeah that wasn't her address either," said Swift, remembering the exasperation.
So, sitting in an apartment complex parking lot, the team divided and conquered.
Burchnell, who had loaded and unloaded the female in and out of the car as they stopped to let her throw up, continued to care for her.
"She could not walk; she was dead weight," said Burchnell. "I kept her sitting up. I was shaking; I was really nervous for her. I've never been so scared seeing someone that bad. I didn't want her dying on me or anything. I know alcohol poisoning is serious."
Meanwhile, Swift was going through the girl's cell phone - looking at text messages and trying recent calls. After asking what her best friend's name was, she was able to get in touch with her only to have the friend say she was too drunk to come get her.
The best friend didn't recognize the name of the guy her friend was with, but did mention that the girl's brother was in town and gave Swift his name.
While Swift was using the cell phone to try to match names and phone numbers, Ellis was checking numbers of her own, looking at the apartment complex addresses to see if they were even close to what they had been given.
"We were looking at the numbers and there was no way that could have been her address," said Ellis. "It was the right street, but the numbers were off."
Finally, Swift was able to get in touch with her brother, who agreed to meet them.
During the two-hour ordeal, the Airmen agreed there were definitely times that they thought, "I can't do this anymore," but they never considered leaving, they said.
The Airmen discussed taking her to the hospital, but the girl was alert enough to resist that suggestion. They even attempted to flag down a police officer whom they had seen in the neighborhood as they drove around, but the officer was gone when they circled back.
After the brother arrived and took his sister, the Airmen drove the man to his house, and Ellis explained to him, "You could be the nicest guy in the world, but we are just not comfortable taking this chance and leaving her with you. You just never know."
A1C Rachel Burchnell, 366th OSS
and Greenville, Tenn., native
It wasn't until their hour drive home at 4 a.m. that they realized they had just executed SAPR.
"It didn't kick in while we were doing it, but on the way home Ellis said, 'Gosh, this is actually working,'" recalled Swift. "She was like, 'we just did SAPR the whole way through it.'"
SAPR training is an annual Air Force requirement, and the Airmen took the training to heart.
"It was instinct," said Swift. "If we didn't have it drilled in our brains so much about how important it is, we might have shrugged it off."
"They drill into your head to have a Wingman," said Burchnell, "But you don't really think about it in-depth until you are put in that position and see someone left alone and wonder what could happen."
Still impacted by the events, it was the next week at work when fellow Airmen in their squadron heard them discussing the situation, and word got back to their leadership.
"These Airmen are heroes in every sense of the word," said Lt. Col. Damon Anthony, 366th OSS commander. "They demonstrated incredible moral courage in a difficult situation. Their proactive actions and leadership diffused a bad situation, and possibly prevented a sexual assault. They truly set an example for us all to follow."
Some may wonder what would have happened if these Airmen had not stepped in. Even with intervening, the Airmen were curious to know how the girl managed through the night. So curious, the next day Swift was back in Boise and stopped in to check on her.
"She was fine," reported Swift, though she remembered few details from the night before. "She said thanks a lot, and she really appreciated what we did. [The guy] was somebody in class, but she didn't talk to him a lot. She asked how she got the cut on the head and how we found them."
Though it is impossible to know what might have happened if these Airmen had not found them, one thing these wingmen don't have to wonder about is whether or not they did the right thing.
Editor's note: True Wingmen Act! These three 366th OSS Airmen prevented a possible sexual assault in Boise. Now watch the CSAF and CMSAF's message on SAPR.
CSAF and CMSAF Sexual Assault Prevention Message