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Solutions to the Military Sexual Assault Crisis

by Wendy Innes, published

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had his first in-person meeting with the panel responsible for reviewing the Department of Defense's (DoD) policies and procedures regarding sexual assault on June 27. Until then, the Defense Secretary had participated in the meetings by teleconference.

Just a day later, Hagel addressed troops in a town hall style meeting in Colorado. He told them:

“We don't break the law, but we certainly don't assault our own people,” Hagel said. “There's no excuse for this.

“Every one of you -- me, top, bottom, bottom-up -- has the responsibility here,” he added. “It isn't going to get fixed just by directive or a training session or a new law being passed. It gets fixed within the fabric of the institution.”

While it's true another death-by-PowerPoint training session isn't going to fix the problem, there are a number of things that can be done to make a significant dent in the problem.

The Surveys are Wrong

Multiple sources have said the surveys that anonymously report the numbers of sexual assaults are asking the wrong questions.

Joseph Grenny is a behavior consultant who has worked with the Army and one of the authors of the New York Times Bestseller "Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change." Grenny believes the DoD needs to change what is measured and its approach to the crisis before any real change can occur.

, according to Grenny.


Instead, he believes the military needs to do the following:

  • Measure accountability rather than the number of incidents reported
  • Establish punishment and reward cultures that create safety
  • Specifically address cues that lead to or encourage bad behavior, such as risqué or degrading pictures
  • Establish a culture of accountability in reporting deviant behavior
  • Engage opinion leaders and information leaders in encouraging people to change their behavior

Grenny's book asserts that if the military were to ask the right questions, the reports of sexual assault would increase, but that would actually be a good thing:

"A useful measure would tell you (unit by unit) how safe people feel. It would tell you (1) if they feel safe from harassment or assault and (2) if they feel safe reporting harassment or assault."

The answers to these questions could then drive actions that would result in meaningful change.

A study in the Journal of Diverse Social Work also thinks the surveys are asking the wrong questions. There are 52 questions asked of those who identify themselves as victims of military sexual assault, but the study found that those "questions are designed as research on how to blame the survivor of the trauma."

Regardless of the questions or the answers, changes need to be made to provide a safer environment. However, some of the programs that have been implemented are laughable at best.

A Slap in the Face

One program that was implemented in April seemed to fall flat when it came to victim's rights advocates. The DoD commissioned WILL Interactive, a Maryland based company that makes interactive videos, to create a video game to be used as a training simulator to teach soldiers how to respond to scenarios that could result in sexual assault. The cost of the original program, called "Team-Bound", was undisclosed, but the DoD liked it so much that they've commissioned a sequel.

But victim's rights groups are far from happy. They say the program is not only a waste of taxpayer dollars in an already troubled economy, but it's a slap in the face of victims and shows just how clueless the DoD is when it comes to sexual assault.

In an interview with NBC, Nancy Parrish, President of Protect Our Defenders, said that the video “continues to portray rape and sexual assault as a misunderstanding of a social situation." Sexual assault is not about sex at all, as experts have repeatedly asserted. It is a crime of dominance and control. This is not the DoD's first out-of-touch attempt to curb sexual assaults . A previous campaign, called "Ask Her When She's Sober" treated sexual assault as an etiquette faux pas, instead of the violent crime that it is.

Viable Solutions

It's clear that training and video games are not going to stop the number of assaults occurring every day in the military. But what will? There are a number of things that can be done, or have already been implemented that can have a big impact, provided that the DoD follows through.

The first step to stopping sexual assaults is to stop allowing sexual predators to enlist in the military. It's impossible to bail out a boat if the water is still gushing in, and the same is true of predators. Thanks to changes to the 2013 NDAA, sex offenders can no longer get a waiver to join the military. But what about those who are already in the military?

  1. Article 60 Reform

Perhaps the most important change that needs to be made is to remove the process of investigation and adjudication from military commanders. It would likely have the most significant impact on the problem, but military brass just doesn't want to hand over control.

The study in the Journal of Diverse Social Work found that "a civilian team should investigate all MST cases because military teams are incapable of being impartial and are inept at providing the services needed for fair and thorough trials." This is a sentiment echoed by numerous victim's rights groups as well as some on Capitol Hill, but each time the issue comes before Congress, it is soundly defeated.

At a May press conference on the issue, Secretary Hagel said "I announced a set of measures to reform the military justice system. This included proposed changes to Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That change would eliminate the ability of a convening authority to change findings in courts martial, except for certain minor offenses." These, along with other changes, could be significant, if the DoD makes good on them.

  1. Streamline Reporting and Investigation

According to Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, not only does the culture of the military that accepts these assaults need to change, but the investigative process needs to be streamlined. Secretary Mabus said in an interview with American Forces Press Service that one area of focus that his service is looking at is reporting. “Is it reported? How quickly and how well do we respond?” Mabus said. “Is the command climate right for people to report?” In addition, Secretary Mabus says that the investigative process that was taking up to 180 days can be reduced to 80 days. He also believes that if convicted it should mean that the perpetrator is automatically thrown out of the service, something that doesn't occur now.

  1. Team Building

The macho, "boy's club" culture of the military must be changed as well. There are still many units in the military that encourage the degradation of women, in the name of camaraderie. To some degree, any organization of young, physically fit men can expect this behavior, says Phillip Carter, director of the Center for a New American Security's Military, Veterans and Society Program. The trick, he says in an interview with Stars and Stripes, is to channel that energy in a positive way. He says that team building needs to take place to encourage the idea that women are equals on the same team.

  1. Across-the-Board Standards

Different standards for men and women can also contribute to tension that can lead to harassment. According to Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), having different standards between the sexes encourages discrimination. These standards are going to be in the spotlight in the coming months as women are moved into combat roles.

  1. Command Accountability

"We need cultural change where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, where victims' privacy is protected, where bystanders are motivated to intervene, and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice." Secretary Hagel said in May. "All of our leaders at every level in this institution will be held accountable for preventing and responding to sexual assault in their ranks and under their commands."

Some of these may seem silly at first glance, but by removing the "us vs. them" mentality and holding predators and those that aid them responsible, perhaps the military can improve the culture of victimization within its ranks.

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