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WASHINGTON - "Take back your Army from those who harm or assault our Soldiers. Take back your Army from those who ignore the values and who stain our honor. Take back our Army from those who fail to lead," said Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh.
The stain to which he referred is sexual assault and harassment.
The secretary, along with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, were the featured speakers at a Pentagon ceremony marking the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, observed in April.
This year's theme is "Speak Up! A Voice Unheard is an Army Defeated."
The secretary's call to action is being heeded and the message is getting out. Victims are feeling more confident and are reporting these crimes and when they do, they feel they will be taken seriously and that their commanders will follow up and act, McHugh said.
That Soldiers are stepping up is not merely anecdotal.
Survivors have had the courage to come forward and report the crimes against them, Odierno said, citing a 51 percent increase in reported sexual assaults from 2012 to 2013, with about 10 percent of those reports citing trauma, which occurred more than a year earlier.
"I believe that's starting to show confidence that the Army is taking this seriously, that the chain of command is taking this seriously," he said.
McHugh credited the rise in victim reporting with a number of factors, including increasing the number of well-trained victim advocates and sexual assault response coordinators who have had extensive background checks done on them. Also, prosecutors and investigators are receiving better training.
Additionally, there is now a requirement for mandatory comments on officer and noncommissioned officer evaluation reports, detailing how they're fostering climates of dignity and respect and adherence to the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.
Besides better training and reporting requirements, Odierno said the culture is changing at the small-unit level, and that's where change is most effective.
"We won't succeed at this with PowerPoint slides or briefings in large formations and mandatory training," as was the case with training in the past, he said.
Rather, he challenged leaders at every level to get their Soldiers together in small groups and talk about the problem. "Every leader needs to take ownership of this problem."
Odierno referred to sexual assault and harassment as an "insider threat," affecting the "credibility of our institution."
Dealing with this insider threat, he said requires using the chain of command and, when necessary, the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"The UCMJ, when implemented properly, is the best tool possible to prosecute offenders and protect survivors because it allows the commander to take actions beyond that of civilian courts, to prosecute both sexual assault and harassment, on or off post," he said.
Odierno implored Soldiers to take this problem head on and intervene when harassment is observed at its earliest stage.
"It's reprehensible that anyone who wears this uniform threatens or assaults a member of the Army family," he said. "These crimes destroy the lives of individuals, degrade the readiness of our force for war, and threaten the very core of our institution and the Army profession."
He added that the issue is about trust and that every act of sexual assault or harassment violates that trust. "The American public expects the Army to get this right."
Chandler called sexual assault and harassment a "cancer" that needs to be sliced out. Like the secretary and chief, he said he's been greatly encouraged by what he's seen over the course of just the last year at town hall meetings he frequents where he interacts with Soldiers on a personal level.
"Just over a year ago, you'd be lucky if you (could) find less than 25 percent of the audience that would say 'I would trust my first sergeant if I came forward with an issue,'" he said, adding that now that proportion has risen dramatically.
He said noncommissioned officers are stepping up to the plate and are taking charge and holding each other and their subordinates accountable.
The dynamic is changing as more and more Soldiers feel a sense of trust between themselves and their leaders, he said. Soldiers are looking out for their "battle buddies."
Chandler acknowledged that the Army still has a long way to go before the cancer is removed, and despite progress being made, no one should be complacent.
He said it will take Soldiers like Master Sgt. Richard Fry to get this accomplished. Fry was recognized during the ceremony as a driving force for leading cultural change at his unit, the 18th Engineer Brigade, in Schweinfurt, Germany, last year where he served as a sexual assault response coordinator. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal during the ceremony for being selected as the Army's 2014 Sexual Assault Response Coordinator of the Year.
Dr. Christine Altendorf, director of the Army SHARP program, spoke briefly, saying she hoped this awareness campaign encourages even more survivors to step forward and that Soldiers and Army civilians become more educated about preventing sexual assault.