Sexual Assault: A Fleet Readiness Problem

By Rear Admirals Martha Herb and Tony Kurta, U.S. Navy

How the Problem Manifests

• Unsafe conditions: We are unable to provide sailors with a safe working environment. A female serving in the Navy has a one-in-five chance of being sexually assaulted during her career. Male sailors are not safe, either; in fact, most victims are male. 3

• Inability to focus: Current readiness is degraded because service members cannot concentrate solely on the unit mission if they must focus on ensuring their personal safety. Commanders and leadership spend increasing amounts of time educating and training the force on these issues. Senior leadership is consumed responding to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), Congress, and the public at the same time as profound strategic and financial challenges require all our intellectual capacity.

• Recruiting issues: The future readiness problem lies in demographics and talent. We recruit from the high-school graduate population, and we need 35,000–40,000 new sailors every year just to maintain our current size. That number will increase as the economy improves. Run-ins with law enforcement, obesity, and a lack of educational achievement shrink the eligible recruiting pool each day. Approximately 24 percent of the target population is eligible to serve, and overall propensity to do so hovers in the low double digits. 4 We need the young women of America if we are to remain the premiere global maritime force. Females represent a large piece of our talent pool, officer and enlisted. Their tendency to serve is about half that of males, and we cannot afford to write off any talent. 5 Senator John McCain stated recently: “Just last night, a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not.” 6 If one of the few remaining veterans in the Senate is advising women against joining, what are guidance counselors and parents in middle America saying to students and children?

• Retention in danger: We are fortunate that the publicity surrounding Navy sexual harassment and assaults is not yet significantly driving female retention behavior. However, during the past two years, we have started to see a divergence in genders in this area. While the change is not correlated directly to harassment and assault, the current environment is certainly not contributing to female retention. 7

• Burden the victim: Those who suffer sexual harassment (jokes, inappropriate pictures or magazines in work spaces, unwanted advances) or assault (anything from inappropriate touching to rape) face an immense burden. We ask them, often our youngest and newest sailors, to decide rather quickly: whether the action was harassment or assault; if the former, will they make a formal or informal complaint; if the latter, will they make a restricted or unrestricted report. Is this really the position in which we want to put young sailors?

A Solid Start

It is not our intent to minimize what has been done to date, or the tremendous energy and effort applied to preventing these offenses. Efforts from the deckplate to senior leadership have contributed greatly to a sexual-assault prevention-and-response approach (SAPR) that is stronger than just two years ago. Significant resources have been applied to the problem, and progress has been made on both fronts.

The Navy conducted a Fleet-wide stand-down in April 2012 and initiated the Secretary of Defense–mandated stand-down of June 2013. Over the past 12 months, every officer and sailor has been exposed to intense, tailored training in the form of SAPR-Leadership and SAPR-Fleet. Every member of the leadership triad (commanding officer, executive officer, command master chief) has had tailored SAPR training at Command Leadership School. All new sailors receive intense Bystander Intervention training in small groups during recruit training. A pilot program that synchronizes the efforts of base leadership, local law enforcement, business leaders, and medical services—piloted at Great Lakes—is being expanded Fleet-wide. Tailored training for civilians will be deployed soon.

We continue to effectively train both prosecutors and defense counsel in military justice and trial advocacy, with special attention to sexual-assault case litigation. We have scrutinized litigation training at all career levels. The Office of the Judge Advocate General (OJAG) has added the capability to train the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and the Fleet on these cases. In 2010, the service instituted the Trial Counsel and Defense Counsel Assistance Program to enhance performance through every phase of a court-martial process. Additionally, we established the externship program and assigned two mid-level career officers to work in designated civilian sex-crimes units. 8

NCIS transitioned from its traditional single-agent investigative response and is shifting to a team-response model with properly trained adult-sexual-assault agents to surge and respond to all reports of these offenses. Additionally, the NCIS Text and Web Tip Line was initiated as an anonymous system that gives service members a discreet and secure reporting option. This concentration of resources by OJAG and NCIS has led to better response, investigation, and adjudication. However, we have no evidence that it has had any effect on preventing the problems. To right the ship, we must change the culture, make reporting easier, act boldly and decisively, expect more deckplate leadership, and define tangible behaviors that are the Navy standard.

Change the Culture

This sounds easy, but as we look at lessons learned from our decades-long campaign to promote the responsible use of alcohol, changing a deeply imbedded pattern can be a long, slow process. Even with demonstrable success with respect to alcohol, it remains a problem in the Fleet, as evidenced by the number of sexual assaults in which alcohol is a factor for both victims and perpetrators. 9 But substance abuse and lascivious behavior are not the same issues, and if in 10 or 20 years we are still fighting the scope of sexual problems that we are today, it will be indefensible.

One of our challenges is that leadership does not intimately understand the society from which sailors join the Navy. Our youngest service members communicate differently, see people differently, and have different standards of behavior—particularly concerning sexual conduct—than do most who are in leadership roles. Despite attempts to instill new standards during accession training, this societal culture and “traditional” Navy culture collide. The results? While not scientific, this article’s coauthors have observed or heard the following anecdotal evidence during the past few years:

• “Pursuit of the Battle E” means sleeping with an enlisted female.

• Female mid-grade leaders advise their female sailors when they complain about sexism and sexual harassment, “It’s a man’s world and that’s the way it is, just get used to it.”

• Port visits are for letting off steam. Drinking and sex (among both men and women) can be pursued with available shipmates.

Our job and challenge as leaders is to change the outcome of this culture clash and create the new Navy culture. The end state is not in question: It must be a Navy in which all are treated with dignity and respect and leadership is the mainstay. This means setting standards and enforcing them. Leadership sets the boundaries, since those who join often just want to fit in to the organization. We must create an atmosphere that reflects what we know is right and wrong, not one that matches what the youngest see as right and wrong. For example, the Navy sets higher standards for alcohol than does both society and the younger generation. Therefore, to address sexual assaults and harassment, focus groups of young sailors are not the answer, nor are they the place from where we should develop the standard.

The question remains how best to attack the prevailing culture and truly embody our mantra of zero tolerance. We submit that the answer parallels the actions taken in New York in the mid-’90s to reduce serious crime. Police were responding to crime, not preventing it—in a situation that is very similar to that of the Navy today. We are responding to sexual harassment and assault, not yet preventing it. New York’s approach, spearheaded by the new police commissioner, William Bratton, was to operationalize the “broken window” theory.

Commissioner Bratton put as much of his force as possible on the streets (leadership by walking around, in our terms) and, thus, began making the streets safer by being among the citizens. In metaphoric terms, the theory’s premise was that someone needed to pay attention to the fact that the window was broken and glass was on the floor. Untended disorderly behavior can signal that nobody cares about the community and lead to more serious disorder and crime.

This is what is happening in our Navy: “Low level” sexual harassment such as sexist jokes, questionable pinups, open pornography, and offhanded comments is not being confronted decisively and aggressively. The boundaries of acceptable behavior are not clear because victims are encouraged by policy to solve incidents informally. Therefore, no uniform standard can ever emerge. To change the prevailing culture, to affect the rate of sexual assault, we must directly confront sexual harassment. This method worked for New York, where violent crime was reduced by 33 percent. 10

Make Reporting Easier

By changing the prevailing culture, we can start to reestablish trust that leaders will take allegations seriously, not blame the victim, and see adjudication through to the end. However, we also need to facilitate reporting of all harassment and assaults, and avoid re-victimization during the investigation-and-reporting process. The main step, and one that reinforces cultural change, is to treat all sexual-related events, from harassment to assault—the entire continuum of behavior—under the current SAPR policy.

According to policy, we handle these complaints the same way we treat those about equal opportunity, and we encourage sailors to handle them using the informal resolution system. If that is unable to resolve the issue, a formal complaint process is available. Instead, any event along the entire behavior continuum should be reported as a restricted or unrestricted report, investigated formally, and adjudicated in the same manner as are sexual assaults (see Figure 3). This would tremendously simplify the process for the victim. There would be no more having to decide whether it was harassment or assault, or whether to use the informal or formal complaint process. Granted, it would require more investigative and adjudication resources (primarily from NCIS and judge advocates general, respectively). But the Navy always applies resources to readiness and safety issues.

These changes can be accomplished quickly. No statutory changes are required, merely relief from OSD policy that currently mandates using the informal resolution system to handle allegations of sexual harassment. If we fail to act boldly, we will not only continue to erode the trust that sailors have in leadership, we will also continue to cede the initiative to Congress and lose control of potential solutions.

Expect More Deckplate Leadership

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens has made this a centerpiece of his engagement with the CPO mess on this subject. Additionally, we are in the midst of a Navy-wide zone inspection to uncover and remove all offensive materials in the workplace. This is directly analogous to the community policing deployed in New York. Just as the “desk” cops were required to start participating in neighborhood patrols, so must all of us, as leaders, ensure we are walking around our “neighborhoods” while setting and enforcing standards and making zero tolerance more than just a slogan. We know how to do this.

We have our core values, our Navy ethos. The next course of action is to institutionalize tangible behaviors that correspond to seminal Navy principles. Stakeholders across the service, officer and enlisted, have developed a document, Signature Behaviors , that outlines the types of conduct we must expect from everyone. Adoption and promulgation of such a document provides the base from which we can build training and set standards.

The Navy and its legacy of heroic acts that have guaranteed the freedoms of our nation represent what we volunteered to do. We have many challenges confronting us: foes on the horizon, fiscal uncertainty, potentially significant force-structure cuts, rising personnel costs that threaten a hollow force, and the list goes on. Plus we face a severe threat from within. Misconduct and criminal acts along the entire spectrum of sexual behavior threaten our current and future readiness.

Our actions to date are not enough. Bold, decisive action is called for—for which the Navy has been famous on the high seas for centuries. We believe the service is up to the challenge. We have always been up to the challenge. Taking the steps outlined here can help change the debate, change the culture, reestablish trust in our leadership, and make us a better warfighting force today and into the future.

1. U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military Fiscal Year 2012 , vol. 1, 296.

2. Ibid., vol. 2, annex A, “2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members.”

3. Ibid.

4. Defense Human Resources Activity, PowerPoint presentations “Youth Poll 21 Military Eligibility Overview” (July 2012, slide 7) and “State of the Recruiting Market” (June 2013, slide 5). Held in authors’ library.

5. Defense Human Resources Activity, PowerPoint presentation “Youth Poll,” slide 1.

6. John McCain statement before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, 5 June 2013.

7. Peggy A. Golfin and David L. Reese, PowerPoint presentation “Attrition and Reenlistment of First-Term Sailors” (update through second quarter of FY13, slide 23). Held in author’s library.

8. Nanette DeRenzi statement before the Senate Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel on Sexual Assault in the Military, March 2013.

9. U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military Fiscal Year 2012 , vol. 1, 452.

10. William Bratton, Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic (New York: Random House, 1998).

Rear Admiral Herb was OPNAV N135, Director Sailor and Family Readiness, from July 2011 to May 2013, which included the Navy’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Program. She is a member of the explosive-ordnance-disposal community and a qualified surface-warfare officer. Before flag selection and returning to full-time Navy support, she worked for more than 15 years providing counseling for those suffering from PTSD and victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse. She holds an Ed.D. and is licensed to practice in Maryland.

Rear Admiral Kurta has been OPNAV N13, Director Military Plans and Policy, for the past three years, which includes the sexual-assault prevention and response and sexual-harassment programs. He is a surface-warfare officer and came to OPNAV from command of the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa, Djibouti.




Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2015

Mon, 2015-12-07

Defense Forum Washington will take place 7 December 2015 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.  

Maritime Security Dialogue

View All

From the Press

"Goldrick Seminar: 2015"

Thu, 2015-12-03

Guest Speakers & Book Signing

Mon, 2015-12-07

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership