The Bayonet

Wednesday, Feb. 05, 2014

Army secretary says culture changing on sexual assault

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JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. — Soldiers who are victims of sexual assault are showing more willingness to report crimes against them, a sign that there is growing confidence in the Army’s commitment to investigating such crimes and providing support to victims, according to Army leaders.

Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh spoke about preventing sexual assault, his top priority, Jan. 28, at the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention conference at Joint Base Andrews, just outside Washington, D.C.

The secretary outlined both his concerns — and the Army’s growing list of accomplishments — to the more than 300 officers and senior enlisted personnel in attendance at the event aimed at promoting the Army’s effort to curb sexual assault in the ranks.

McHugh cited findings from the Army’s provost marshal general that found the number of reports of violent sexual crimes in the Army has increased over the last three years. A greater willingness to report may be the result of a victim’s trust in their leadership, unit, and the Army, representing a shift in Army culture.

“Victims feel as though they not only can come forward, they should come forward ... and they know they won’t be victimized a second time by a leader who doesn’t care, who doesn’t believe them, who doesn’t take them seriously,” McHugh said. “And they won’t be harassed when they go back to the unit by other Soldiers for blowing the whistle on someone. I think we have made great progress down that path. I think our efforts are working.”

As evidence of that, McHugh said many of those reports — nearly 40 percent — involve incidents that happened in years past. That, he said, is a likely indication that the increase in reporting is not necessarily an increase in crime, but rather a new willingness of Soldiers to open up to their leadership about having been victimized.

“That, I think, is such a clear signal that those who have been assaulted do trust you, that you are making an effort, that you are changing the culture,” he said.

In fiscal 2012, the Army had a prosecution rate of 56 percent for founded rape allegations in which the Army had jurisdiction over the offender. This resulted in a conviction rate of 78 percent for those rape cases tried to findings. These rates are significantly higher than those in the civilian community.

The service has also assigned full-time Army civilians and Soldiers as sexual assault response coordinators, known as SARCs and victim advocates at brigade-level units. And he said the Army is making sure that those positions are filled by qualified individuals who have both the passion for the work, as well as the expertise to do it correctly.

“(We are) ensuring that those who serve in such a position of trust are the right people,” he said. “Making sure that commanders don’t just take who happens to be available, but pick those who are truly qualified and able to serve.”

The Army also recently created the special victim counsel program that ensures victims get an Army lawyer dedicated to them, to advocate on their behalf and help them navigate the complexities of the criminal justice system while perpetrators of the crimes against them are prosecuted. There are 81 special victim counsels now trained across the Army.

“We also ensure now that we initiate separation or elimination proceedings, and prohibit overseas assignment for Soldiers who are convicted of sexual assault, where the convictions don’t result, for whatever reason, in a punitive discharge or dismissal,” he said.

And, Soldiers recently found changes to the evaluation and reporting system that takes into account their own efforts to foster a “climate of dignity and respect, and most importantly how those officers and NCOs are adhering, or not, to our SHARP program,” the secretary said.

Despite the encouraging news, McHugh cautioned attendees they need to be more vigilant in ensuring resources are available to victims of sexual assault. He said an Army Audit Agency study found only 73 percent of calls designed to test the victim support network were answered successfully. Examples of failures included voicemails that were not returned, unanswered phones, disconnected numbers and numbers on websites that were incorrect.

“That is outrageous,” McHugh said. “This isn’t a failure of a website, or a number or the phone company. This is a failure of leadership. I don’t know how we can make it any clearer to those in charge who are commanders. It cannot and it will not be tolerated. Every time a victim reaches out, we have got to be there. We have to provide the help that we say is available.”

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