February 2020 changed my life. I filed an unrestricted report of sexual assault to the Sexual Assault and Prevention Response (SAPR) victim advocate. I had no idea what the future would bring. Luckily, my chain of command was (and remains) helpful. I was given easily accessible resources and was blessed with supportive peers. But many people serving, especially in the Marine Corps, are not as fortunate.
The Marine Corps always has been known as the toughest branch. We have the toughest boot camp, the toughest standards, and the toughest jobs in combat. That all might be true, but the “tough” mind-set embedded in Marines has resulted in a lack of important discussions and education on sensitive topics, such as sexual assault and mental health.
Over the years, the Marine Corps has grown in sexual assault awareness, advocacy, and resources. The SAPR Program, for example, was created to provide a safe haven to victims who are active service members in the Navy and Marine Corps. It provides a confidential reporting process for victims and also works to advocate for and educate service members on sexual assault prevention in and out of uniform. But there is room for improvement.
Open Advocate Positions to Corporals
Currently, the Marine Corps Order for the SAPR Program (MCO 1752.5C) states that the rank required to qualify as a SAPR victim advocate is sergeant or higher. In the eyes of the Marine Corps, this might seem logical. The service has always functioned through a rank structure, encouraging mentor to mentee relationships of senior to subordinate. Today, however, there is a large mentorship presence among corporals and below, as well as an eagerness for new responsibilities, new billets, and new ways to honor our Core Values. Opening the SAPR victim advocate training to highly proficient and qualified Marines from the rank of corporal and above would bring advocacy to a new level. It would bring greater comfort for victims through the reporting process, as corporals are the most present Marines in each unit.
Per MCO 1752.5C, when service members report a sexual assault, they have the option to choose either a restricted or unrestricted report. Restricted reports are confidential between the service member, their victim advocate, emotional and legal counseling services, and medical professionals. Unrestricted reports allow the victim access to additional resources, such as their chain of command and law enforcement.
For the incident to remain a restricted report, the victim must contact the Department of Defense Safe Helpline or the SAPR victim advocate in their unit. If the Marine chooses to seek help from law enforcement or their chain of command, the restricted report will no longer be available. Though there are Safe Helpline posters and photographs of units’ SAPR victim advocates posted in government quarters and buildings, their placement is haphazard, and the lack of communication regarding reporting procedures hampers advocacy. Victims may lack knowledge about the two different reports and their requirements.
In addition, though Marine Corps Order 1752.5C states that a photograph of the appointed SAPR victim advocate shall be posted in the unit’s common areas, as well as posters with the installation’s 24/7 Sexual Assault Support Line phone number, Safe Helpline contact information, and reporting options, many of the photographs and posters are outdated.
Every sexual assault report is a unique situation. The victim may not know if they will need other people, mentors, or peers for support and help. Giving the option on Department of Defense Form 2910 to include people besides the victim advocate, legal counsel, or medical professionals, but still allowing the report to remain restricted, would recognize each victim’s unique needs throughout their reporting process.
An updated and regularly maintained resource quickly available to Marines would be beneficial. Having open-ended discussions and more frequent education for Marines, by Marines, on sexual assault prevention and response also would encourage many Marines to go from unresponsive witnesses to active bystanders, as encouraged in Marine Corps Order 1752.5C. Having these conversations will eliminate the underlying discomfort and the stigma of sensitivity found in so many Marines today.
In addition to reforming policies and procedures regarding advocacy and awareness, the Marine Corps should reform how it deals with individuals convicted of sexual offenses. For an active-duty service member found guilty of committing a sexual offense, a dishonorable discharge should be automatic.
Marines thrive in being comfortable with being uncomfortable. When conversations move toward sexual assault, however, the walls go up. Creating real change, by expanding the SAPR victim advocate program, customizing and improving reporting, and expanding and promoting knowledge are steps in the right direction.