The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 18, 2007

Vance MEO office works to eliminate discrimination, harrassment, to spread understanding

By Jeff Mullin Senior Writer

The primary colors of the U.S. Air Force are dress blue, the camouflage of Battle Dress Uniforms and the green of flight suits.

But the people wearing those uniforms are every color of the rainbow. According to Air Force Personnel Center’s latest dem-ographics report, 14.7 percent of AF personnel are black, 9.3 percent are Hispanic and 2.41 percent are Asian.

The generic term for Air Force personnel is airmen, but 19.58 percent of the force are women.

The Air Force is a diverse force, with members of both sexes and every race and religious affiliation.

‘Check and balance’

Helping keep this diverse collection of individuals working harmoniously toward the same goal is the mission of the Military Equal Opportunity office.

MEO offices work to ensure airmen will not face unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion or sex. Sexual harassment is another MEO target.

At Vance Air Force Base, the MEO office does its job so well it recently was named outstanding Military Equal Opportunity office in Air Education and Training Command for the third year in a row.

“Our job is to make sure if they (airmen) perceive they have been discriminated against, we’re the check and balance,” said Master Sgt. Spencer Parker, superintendent of the Vance MEO office. Parker recently was honored as AETC outstanding MEO individual for the second time.

Overall, Parker said, Vance ‘s MEO office doesn’t deal with many complaints.

“Luckily for us we haven’t had a lot of issues,” he said. “Most of the things that do come up are pretty small, communication breakdowns. Sometimes it’s just folks not being professional.”

‘A lot of proactive measures’

Vance MEO personnel spend much of their time conducting training sessions throughout the base, trying to promote an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding, as well as keeping service members current on Air Force regulations regarding discrimination and sexual harassment.

“We try to affect people as soon they arrive on base,” said 1st Lt. Jennifer Greig, chief of MEO at Vance.

Troops are reminded no form of sexual harassment in the workplace will be tolerated.

“We help them understand when you put their uniform on, you’re ambassadors,” Parker said. “We have a lot of proactive measures to help folks understand you need to be professional and watch your behavior. We don’t want folks walking on eggshells, but there are expectations that this is a professional environment, and you’re supposed to conduct yourself a certain way.”

Many issues, Parker said, “are misperceptions.”

If a military member believes he or she has been discriminated against or a victim of sexual harassment, the MEO office can be contacted for help. The member then can try to resolve the issue either informally or formally.

Informal complaints can be resolved by addressing the issue face to face with the alleged offender, through mediation by MEO staff or intervention by a coworker or through the chain of command.

If a formal complaint is filed, the MEO office conducts a complaint clarification. That involves gathering all the details of the allegation, interviewing witnesses and informing the airman’s commander about the complaint.

Embracing ‘that ideology’

The MEO office works closely with the Staff Judge Advocate’s office to determine, if a complaint is substantiated, what to do next.

“If it is not substantiated we will still give the commander a recommendation of things you can do to prevent the perception,” Parker said.

Some 18 percent of all Air Force officers are women, which can cause problems if men are averse to taking orders from a female.

“In reality it should be no issue,” Parker said, “but those issues do come up. We relate to folks regardless if it’s a male or a female, they hold that rank because they’ve earned it, they hold that title because they’ve earned it. If folks can’t embrace that ideology, they don’t have a place in the military.”

Merging with civilian side

The Vance MEO office deals primarily with military issues, but as of Jan. 1 it will merge with the civilian equal employment opportunity office, thus becoming a single location to handle both military and civilian claims and issues.

“The biggest difference in the past has been civilian issues are based on the law, while ours are based on policy and the law,” Parker said. “Even though we’re merging, we’re going to have to understand civilian rules are different than ours, but we’re all going to have a total understanding of both sides of the house, so it’s going to allow us to move forward.”

Vital part of the program

Part of the Vance MEO’s mission is its Cultural Committee, which works to promote understanding by exposing airmen to a variety of cultures and customs.

“Our Cultural Committee expresses diversity through op-portunities to learn about other folks’ cultures, other folks’ background,” Parker said. “I think the Cultural Committee is a very important part of our program for the mere fact a lot of folks are kind of hesitant to talk about race.”

Some perceptions of discrimination, Parker said, can stem from a lack of understanding about different cultures.

“A lot of times folks don’t understand other folks’ backgrounds and why they think a certain way or do things a certain way,” he said. “A lot of times the communications barriers we have come from a lack of understanding.”

The Vance Cultural Committee conducts activities not only on base but in the community, as well. Activities are conducted celebrating different cultures, and a reading program is held featuring books about a particular heritage.

“It’s a chance for the military to go out and help the community, and we’re also spreading the celebration of different heritages,” Greig said.

Members of the Vance MEO office enjoy their jobs, although they wish they didn’t have them.

“It’s unfortunate you have to have any programs of this nature,” Parker said. “I think the military does a very good job of making the field as level as possible, making sure folks get the training to understand that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”