Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno called sexual harassment and assault the biggest problem facing the service. (Lisa Ferdinando / Army)
The Army has issued a mea culpa: We have failed soldiers, we’ve lost their trust, and we are committed to getting it back again.
At the sixth annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Prevention Summit on June 10-11, top leaders from throughout the service gathered to listen to experts and share best practices on how to combat the epidemic that the Defense Department estimates contributed to 26,000 reported cases last year.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno called the problem the biggest facing soldiers today, stressing that it gets down to every unit in the Army, whether or not their commanders want to admit it.
“There’s a predator problem in almost every unit of some size, and so everybody has to work our way through this,” he told Army Times.
He urged commanders and leaders at every level to make fighting sexual harassment and assault their top priority. The official goal is to increase sexual assault reporting to 100 percent while reducing the incidence by 75 percent by 2016.
“People in the Army are very conscientious,” he said. “But there’s a lot of things we do on a daily basis. So what this is, is making sure they understand this is a high priority. This is the first thing you should be trying to do, not the 10th thing or the 11th thing or the 12th thing.”
In addition to Odierno, four-star generals from major commands came to discuss how they got to this point and figure out together how to move forward.
Odierno offered that commanders aren’t taking stock of the climate in their units. Army Training and Doctrine Command commander Gen. Robert W. Cone offered a similar explanation.
“Where I would say, where we’ve had failures, to a certain extent — it’s been naivete on the part of my leaders,” he told reporters. “Leaders not being appropriately, necessarily involved to the extent that they should.”
As the head of Army recruitment and education, Cone acknowledged his unique position in not only setting the example for incoming soldiers but also in making sure predators don’t find their way into the ranks.
“When you take young Americans and you put them in this vulnerable status, you have a responsibility to make sure that everybody operating in that environment meets the standard,” he told Army Times.
Drill sergeants at TRADOC’s Fort Jackson, S.C., training post recently underwent re-education training following an investigation into sexual misconduct involving drill sergeants, including the conviction of Staff Sgt. Louis Corral last year on charges including abusive sexual contact and forcible sodomy with three female recruits.
Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, head of Army Forces Command, explained the long-term effects of allowing a hostile environment around young troops.
“We all learned as very young soldiers that a standard that you fail to correct, when you see something wrong, sets the condition for worse acts of misconduct and potentially criminal actions like sexual assault and sexual harassment,” he told Army Times.
During his opening address, Odierno stressed that even all-male units have sexual assault issues, whether there are predators in the unit or victims, or both.
Allyn urged commanders to address attitudes and language demeaning to women, even in units where sexist jokes might be part of the everyday culture.
“I think the opportunity is there to ...demonstrate to them, what is the second- and third-order effect of that comment that you just made, to everybody in your formation?” he said. “What is the second- and third-order effect for you to fail to stop it when it occurs?”
Beyond renewed vigilance to prevent assaults, the Army is looking at policy changes to properly handle cases when they occur. On June 11, Army Secretary John McHugh announced a plan to reward good job performance for sexual assault response coordinators and sexual assault prevention and response victim advocates.
“Under our current design, there really is no reward for soldiers who do their job well, no recognition as there are in other fields and occupations in the Army for taking these assignments and doing them well, something to help them advance their careers,” McHugh said. “As in other fields, we have to incentivize this mission, not just to encourage commanders to pick their best, but to ensure that soldiers who serve honorably and do what we expect of them will be duly recognized in appropriate ways, as well.”
A SHARP spokesman told Army Times the planning is too preliminary to specify what kinds of incentives the Army will offer to soldiers who become coordinators, but both civilian and military rewards are being considered.
Additionally, McHugh said, SHARP staff will undergo behavioral health screenings to assess their fitness for the job.
The day before McHugh’s announcement, the Army’s personnel chief, Gen. Howard Bromberg, spoke to Army Times about possible reforms around choosing soldiers and civilians for SARC and SAPR positions in the Veterans Affairs Department. He suggested opening SARC positions to motivated soldiers of any rank, as well as making the victim advocate a civilian-only position. He did, however, stress the importance of uniforms in SHARP.
“So if someone serves as a victim advocate and they’re good at it, they go back to the unit and do their other job, but they stay in the Army,” he said. “Then you get a guy who’s a sergeant major later, who’s been a victim advocate. That’s what you want.”
Bromberg also stressed that commanders need to look at sexual assault allegations as an opportunity to improve their units, instead of smears on their records.
“You have to have dialogue with commanders and say, ‘This is how you make your unit better,’ ” he said. “It’s the loyalty to your unit, and it’s the loyalty to all the other soldiers.”