When Staff Sgt. Noah Lubben was assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command, he enjoyed the freedom and the “laid back” atmosphere among his crew. The airmen had more freedom there and embraced the swagger of the Special Operations flying culture. “It was awesome,” Sergeant Lubben recalls. ”It was fun.”
But it was also a culture that ultimately contributed to his sexual assault, Lubben says – with “sexually charged” and “disgusting” insults that isolated him and turned his longtime fellow troops against him.
As the Pentagon released figures last week showing that incidents of sexual assault increased 50 percent between 2012 and 2013, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to take a number of steps, including some designed specifically to reach out to men, who make up half of all reported victims of sexual assault, according to a Pentagon study released last week.
“We have to fight the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting and be clear that sexual assault does not occur because a victim is weak,” Secretary Hagel said. The Pentagon, he added, would be seeking “input from male victims” to make prevention programs more effective.
Lubben, square-jawed and blond with a frank demeanor, says that early in his time in the unit, there was talk about the “cultural lessons” designed to haze new crew members into the ranks.
One of these rituals, Lubben recalled, was the “naked gunner hug,” in which, they were told, the gunner would “go around hugging new flyers with his naked body.”
One female airman took exception to this. “One girl in our class spoke up and said, ‘If that ever happened to me, I’d report it hands down.’ ” In response, some of the male crew members – ”me and two other guys,” Lubben says – ”actually called her a prude,” he recalls. “We told her she wouldn’t fit in well.”
Lubben later apologized to her for the remark, based on what he was to experience in the weeks to come.
It was on his gunship crew’s first temporary duty (TDY) trip to Tampa, Fla., that the trouble began. The crew’s navigator was a captain, and his conversation “was always sexually charged,” Lubben says.
“He bragged about his crude exploits with women,” including showing crew members photos of his conquests stored on his cellphone, he adds. “He was the center of attention, and the rest of the crew sought his approval."
On the first night of TDY, the crew went to a strip club. Lubben opted out. “It’s just not my style,” he says. “I think this put a wedge between me and the crew.”
He began to experience the brunt of the crew’s bad treatment. “They would say disgusting things” directed at him over the plane’s communications system.
Then came Lubben’s first flight without an instructor, which was referred to among his crew and others as “cherry flights,” a reference to a woman losing her virginity and “just another example that illustrates the sexuality ingrained in our culture,” he says.
That's when the assault took place. After the crew coordinated over its communications system to “get” Lubben, he turned around “and to my surprise he [the navigator] had his genitals out and seemed that he was going to hit me in the face” with them. He raised his arm to block that contact.
During the post-flight debriefing, Lubben informed the officer in charge “about the navigator’s inappropriate behavior, and everybody laughed.”
Lubben then spoke one on one with the mission commander, who “looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, that kind of stuff happens.’ ”
He decided to seek counsel from two fellow airmen closest to him. One “encouraged me to do the right thing. The other one warned me not to do anything – I’d make a lot of people angry and only ruin my career.”
Then he sat down with his wife and made a checklist on paper. It became clear: “I could do what was right, or I could do what was popular,” he says. “This made the choice clear for me and made it, not easy, but easier.”
He went straight to his local sexual assault response coordinator. “I was not afraid to speak out against my peers, so I reported it.”
The report caused an outcry, however, among his commanders and fellow crew. People were not upset about his assault, he says, but rather that he had reported it.
At the squadron Christmas party, he was approached by a friend who had heard rumors about what had happened. “He pulled me aside and asked, ‘Can I talk to you?’ He seemed concerned, honestly.”
After Lubben told him the story, “his demeanor changed. He pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Why would you do that? Why would you report this guy and possibly ruin his career?’ ”
He learned that while his experience with the navigator was hurtful, much more so was “the lack of willingness from my friends to stand up for what I’d done,” Lubben said. ”I’ve openly been called a snitch to my face and been stared down.”
The gunship crew, one of the most-deployed units in the Air Force at the time, was disqualified from flying as a result of Lubben’s report.
The navigator received an administrative punishment and was taken out of special operations command, Lubben said.
Today, the Air Force is encouraging him to come forward. At a recent gathering of Air Force three-star generals, who are the “convening authorities” in military justice cases regarding sexual assault, he told his story.
Afterward, he fielded questions from the generals, who included the top officer in the Air Force, Gen. Mark Welsh.
Lubben “is not someone who feels like a victim and acts like a victim – [he] isn’t someone who isn’t strong,” General Welsh said.
And if his story “doesn’t rip you apart,” he told the gathering of dozens of generals around a large round conference room table, “then there’s something wrong with you.”