KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
In the middle of an office punctuated with pink accents, brimming with boxes of “swag” and an abundance of self-empowerment reading sits Tania Wiggins, her rosé hued hair contributing to the soft, welcoming tone of the room.
While her presence and her surroundings and most of her life’s work scream delicate and inviting and safe, Wiggins suffered the unimaginable to get there.
More than a decade ago, while at a party, Wiggins was the victim of a horrific sexual assault. A traumatic experience that initially left her closed off from everyone, detrimentally affecting her relationships with friends and family, the incident eventually led her to resources offered by the Air Force, including the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, to combat the emotional and physical effects of a violent crime.
Wiggins realized that she wanted to be part of the solution, to help victims like her, and to contribute to the Air Force’s efforts to decrease incidents of violence altogether, thus, her landing here at Keesler.
On every Air Force installation there are multiple victim response and advocacy programs, from SAPR to the Family Advocacy Program to mental health clinicians trained to deal with trauma, but until 2016’s implementation of the Specialists for the Primary Prevention of Violence position, there were no solely preventative-based initiatives for interpersonal and self-directed violence.
Here, Wiggins serves as the base-wide violence prevention integrator.
Her position exists primarily, to develop curriculum based on various national and local data to both determine risk factors and to train Airmen in order to decrease incidents of violence, but how, with infinite variables, can violence be prevented?
“My job is to focus on prevention and fill in the gaps for agencies like SAPR, mental health, Family Advocacy, civilian personnel, and emergency management,” said Wiggins. “Whether that’s with training or with data analysis on the actual trends that are happening on the installation, it’s proactively looking at how we can prevent these incidents and crimes from happening before they occur. If we put an emphasis on prevention and being proactive, we will spend less time being reactive and hopefully lessen the number of assaults and suicide deaths.”
Violence prevention is a noble pursuit, but how, with infinite variables, is it a feasible task?
Wiggins puts a lot of her training emphasis on educating Airmen and civilians on bystander intervention and honing in on the importance of developing and maintaining genuine connections.
“We ask, ‘How do we create those connections in our units, in the Air Force as a whole, and in our families where people feel like they matter and bring value to the team, to the family, and to their units?’” said Wiggins. “Everybody has a story, and so it’s about being able to share those stories, how someone was raised, what experiences they’ve had in their life; those are the connections that we want to try and create, so when someone is having stressors in their life or a crisis, we’re in tune with them and will be able to pick up on those because we have taken the time to get to know one another.”
While, technically, she’s a one-woman show, Wiggins works alongside many agencies on base to accrue data and get a better understanding from incidents that do occur to understand how to educate and help Airmen handle stressors and situations that may lead to someone being harmed.
One of those agencies is 403rd Wing Director of Psychological Health Nicole Mayzner.
“Ms. Wiggins’ role is essential for helping the various base-helping agencies come together as a community working towards preventing violence on base as she is able to provide data highlighting trends from a base perspective, which is key to understanding the issues and areas needing attention outside of each agencies’ individual trends,” said Mayzner. “She is primary in promoting team collaboration among military and civilian agencies, along with educating 403rd Airmen on preventative measures and resources to combat interpersonal and self-directed violence.”
The fruits of her labor do not stop at the perimeter of Keesler as there are an abundance of resources that can be found online.
Wiggins coordinated with other agencies to launch a resiliency and prevention site. https://www.keesler.af.mil/Resilience-Center/. The page is a one stop shop for online, over-the-phone, and in-person resources.
Online and over-the-phone resources are especially helpful for traditional reservists who are typically only on base one weekend a month and those who are either teleworking or furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to those more formal resources, Wiggins suggests that in this time where “social distancing” is the keyword, text message groupchats or video conferences are great to implement as a way of checking in on peers and maintaining connectivity.
A retired Air Force veteran, Wiggins is no stranger to the Air Force’s programs, having been a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for 10 years prior to her appointment here in 2016 after surviving that aforementioned traumatic experience herself and benefitting from the Air Force’s programs.
Her efforts towards a solution do not stop at violence prevention as she also serves as Keesler’s Suicide Prevention Program Manager and the Diversity and Inclusion Manager while also serving in the community as a board member for the Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence.
“The mission has to get done,” said Wiggins, “but the mission doesn’t get done to full capacity if we’re not taking care of our people. Taking time to take care of the people will ensure the mission’s success.”