This month’s discussion breaks an unofficial rule of this column by revisiting a previous topic, but the subject needs continued attention. In the August 2012 issue of Proceedings, I discussed sexual assault and drew some pointed criticism from a regular reader and respected friend. She disagreed with my premise because her perspective, shaped by different experiences and knowledge, diverged from mine. We agreed that these assaults are far too common, but my hypothesis may have been better understood if the title had been “Sexual Assault is Not a Legitimate Part of Our Culture.”
My opinion has not changed—although my explanation might—and this is an issue that continues to plague the armed forces. The Navy has even embraced sub-themes for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM); for the first half of April, the message is “Live Our Values.” That was my intended meaning: Sexual assault is contrary to our core values.
My friend’s criticism was part of a cordial, yet emotionally driven discussion, and it was enlightening. It was accompanied by the story of a young sailor who faced blatant sexual harassment from her leading petty officer.
That sailor was subjected to repeated inappropriate comments in public, and more graphic comments in smaller groups. These remarks were overheard by a chief petty officer who asked the junior sailor if she wanted him to talk to the petty officer. Harassment and assault are two very different things, but a lax attitude toward the former diminishes an atmosphere of respect, the overarching theme of SAAM 2014.
Although the service member had a choice about whether to file a formal complaint, it is not the victim’s responsibility to make that decision when the offense occurs in public. The chief in this situation had a responsibility to take immediate action to correct the petty officer and stop the inappropriate behavior that he witnessed.
The Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command message detailing SAAM 2014 states that we must “emphasize our ongoing commitment to build and keep a climate of dignity, respect, and trust.”
These attributes were missing from the chief and petty officer in the situation described here. They did not uphold their leadership responsibilities. This is the point of many articles in this column: The problem is leadership.
So what challenge do leaders face? The prevalence of sexually related offenses is daunting. On Friday, 7 March 2014, U.S. Fleet Forces Command received six initial operational reports related to criminal sexual activity—that is, six new reported cases in a single day.
They include allegations of rape, forcible sodomy, harassment, sexual offenses against a minor, and assault not further defined. The alleged offenders range from young enlisted men to a civilian woman in her late 30s. The alleged victims are similarly diverse; men and women, active duty and civilians. Apparent offenders and victims were spread across three known racial backgrounds. In four cases, the purported offender had consumed alcohol. Two professed victims reported alcohol use; one the ingestion of prescription medication.
There is no single type of sexual offender or victim, so how do we combat a phenomenon that, according to Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Toolan, is so “toxic and damaging to combat readiness” (San Diego Union Tribune, “Marine General on Sex Assault,” 8 June 2013). General Toolan did not overstate the impact of these offenses. One of the victims mentioned earlier attempted suicide.
A recent proposal from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to combat this misconduct would have removed authority from military commanders to decide which cases to pursue. Her bill was killed by a filibuster. Had it passed, it would have been a significant vote of no confidence. But commanders’ authority remains, and it’s time for action. So how do we fight this significant problem? Mandatory training, command emphasis, and political pressure have not worked. They won’t work.
The answer lies closer to the deckplates. It resides in leadership at all levels. No individual can resolve this problem. It’s time for serious discussion among diverse members of the military. As my critic wrote in August 2012: “All the training in the world won’t stop the problem. How leadership handles it could.”